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Existenz review

Virtual reality is a concept much abused by sci-fi writers eager to spew out their cyberwank jargon, tweak our aching cerebellums with mind-bending plot twists and give their CG image-generating pixie friends another chance to `impress' audiences with morphy effects. Johnny Moronic, Virtudrossity - - all suffered from the Technobabble Over Feasible Plot And Character syndrome.

So why bother with eXistenZ? It's got a silly, Random Caps Lock title, for a start. Plus it's set in the increasingly boring Not Too Distant Future, features dialogue like: ""It must be some kind of weird reality bleed-through effect"", and is littered with some of the most ridiculous technospeak you'll ever hear (Bioports, Gristle Guns, UmbyCords - you get the idea). But once you settle into the first original screenplay David Cronenberg has penned since Videodrome, you soon realise that the cold Canadian shockmeister is, well, taking the piss. Yes, the man who gave us Crash has finally made a comedy, albeit a pitch-black one.

On one level, eXistenZ is a tongue-in-cheek exercise in self-parody. All the twisted nastiness of Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers and The Fly is here, but Cronenberg and his cast play with the audience. At first it convinces you it's serious, yet badly executed; then it throws in a few very subtle gags until you gradually get the joke. It's difficult to explain how without giving too much away, but you will start out thinking that eXistenZ is nothing more than Naked Lunch without the Mugwump jism. You just have to hang in there and swallow the pill Cronenberg offers; eventually all will become clear, and you'll soon be chuckling away in delighted surprise.

On another level, the film works as a satire on video games, playing on the Moral Majority's fears of ultraviolence-encouraging games as reality escape pods, while integrating current gaming trends into a horrifyingly realistic VR role-playing setting. Imagine if Nintendo, Sony and Sega developed organic virtual reality systems so convincing that people really did use them to escape their sad lives. Now imagine that each company has armed guerrilla units that invade each other's game space. Now add an anti-games, pro-realism underground that's against them all, and you're there - - in the bizarre future that Cronenberg has dug out of his very strange subconscious.

eXistenZ is subtle, intelligent and sinister in an oddly funny way. It's good to see Cronenberg fiddling with the sci-fi/horror genre again, and even better to see that he has a great sense of humour. Maybe it's not ideal that he feels the need to test his audience, because some cinema-goers do tend to flee at the first sign of trouble, and they'll miss out on the movie's fascinating, hilarious, all-revealing conclusion. But that would be their loss - - after all, they'd be skipping out on the most perversely enjoyable Cronenberg creation yet.

It's darker than Videodrome, weirder than Naked Lunch and funnier than any of Cronenberg's other efforts. eXistenZ offers a wry and refreshing trot on the tired VR horse; given the chance, it'll make you squirm and snigger in equal measure.

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