Jun 26 2012
In 1999, a movie came out that questioned the nature of our reality. Its characters, though initially complacent with the normality of their life, slowly realized that they were cogs in a vast simulation that made up their entire existence. Through some truly bizarre discoveries and a trip down the rabbit-hole, they managed to find their way to the truth of the matter. Or did they?
This movie was, of course, eXistenZ. I mean, The Matrix. Wait, what?
Well, 1999 was one of those years where two (technically three) visionary filmmakers decided to make movies that wound up being strikingly similar to each other. Sure, we could just appreciate them on their own merits, but where’s the fun in that?
Let’s see who did it better – David Cronenberg or the Wachowski Bros.
As mentioned above, both films question the nature of reality. Their specific questions, though, are fairly different. In The Matrix, the Big Question is something like, “Does your perception define your reality?” It’s all over the place — the simulation of the Matrix seems perfectly normal until someone points out the cracks. Neo breaks the rules after learning them. And in the end, Neo’s changed perception of himself is what allows him to embrace his destiny as The One.
The power of believing in yourself?
eXistenZ, on the other hand, is more satirical. Instead of plumbing the philosophical depths of perception vs. reality, it asks us how we determine the difference once we’ve started messing with the way we view the two. Specifically, eXistenZ is concerned with the conflict between virtual reality and real reality. When you start to conflate a fantasy with the existing world, how do you maintain a clear distinction between the two? The audience is taken along for the ride, never more sure of our situation than the characters in the movie are. Unlike The Matrix, the lines between the two worlds become blurred to the point of invisibility.
And you make this face a lot.
eXistenZ wins the subtext round. The questions The Matrix poses are fun conundrums, but they don’t really have any hard bearing on our day-to-day life. It’s a fun “what if?” discussion to have, the smoothie that comes out after sticking a psychology book in a blender. eXistenZ, on the other hand, takes a cold look at the world we actually live in; holding us accountable for things we probably don’t question enough. (This is particularly relevant subject matter on this website — “Unreality.” And I say this as someone who just wrote a whole article about the virtues of speculative fiction.)
In short, Cronenberg’s biting satire is more potent than the philosophy paper of The Matrix.
Now that we’ve got what the movies are saying, let’s get on to how they go about saying it. In terms of story elements, the movies are oddly similar. For instance, they both do a lot of weird things to the human body. In The Matrix, Neo gets the worst of it by far, whether it’s being “bugged,” finding himself “unable to speak,” or waking up with Moby’s haircut in a vat of pink goo.
In eXistenZ, the weirdness is cranked up a notch, and the “cool” factor is mostly replaced by uncomfortable sexual undertones. Wheras the port that the Matrix characters use to jack in is located in their skull, the port for the gamers in eXistenZ is located much lower on the back, and is far more organic in appearance than The Matrix’s mechanical plugs. One character assembles a tooth-firing pistol out of his dinner. The gaming consoles? Well…
Maybe I shouldn’t say “undertones.”
Neither takes these things entirely seriously, though. Both Cronenberg and the Wachowski Bros. temper the weirdness of their visuals with a dry sense of humor. And even more strangely, both derive some of the bigger laughs from a overkill machine used to perform spontaneous surgery on the main character — removing Neo’s bug and installing a bio-port in Pikul.
Oh look, more undertones.
Now, the major difference that has to be acknowledged is the visual effects pedigree of both movies. eXistenZ is much less of a spectacle, though it’s not without its eye-catching moments. Cronenberg’s movies tend to use gruesome practical effects to get the job done, and his team showed themselves up to the demands of the script. That said, The Matrix has this:
Ultimately I feel this part of the contest winds up a draw, with The Matrix having the cooler, more iconic moments and eXistenZ being the creepier, more unsettling ones. Each has what it needs to get the job done.
Lastly, let’s look at the characters. eXistenZ, though wittily written in typical Cronenberg style, unfortunately lacks the strongly defined character work of his best movies. Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both effective in their roles, but the real star here is the ideas and visuals on display. Emotional content is left a bit by the wayside; there’s neither the profound sadness of The Fly, nor the sinister cool of Eastern Promises, nor even the sharp intelligence of A Dangerous Method.
The Matrix, on the other hand, is stacked with memorable characters. Morpheus. Smith. Neo. Trinity. Cypher. Tank. Cool names, distinctive personalities, and brilliant acting. You can quote the movie backwards and forwards, and the actors are as iconic as the groundbreaking visuals. There’s little more to be said; The Matrix takes this category in a walk.
Well, I think we’ve covered enough of the major points. Time to declare a winner, and that winner is…
This is a close contest, no doubt about it. I’m a huge Cronenberg fan, and eXistenZ is no exception, but this movie has always seemed to lack the punch of his stronger works — particularly the similarly-themed Videodrome. Conversely, The Matrix is nearly flawless; juggling iconic visuals, cool sci-fi, fun pop-philosophy, and surprisingly strong character work with ease. It may lack the unnerving honesty of Cronenberg’s outing (and abandon morality entirely at some point), but it’s a better-made movie overall, and infinitely rewatchable.
That said, it’s a shame HOW overshadowed eXistenZ is. If you want a more niche, thought-provoking take on the subject of alternate reality, by all means track it down and give it a watch. It’s been unduly ignored for over ten years now.
So what do you think? Someone want to argue the other way? If there’s a debate to be had, let’s hear it in the comments section.
Also, Double Feature Duels is going to be a recurring column. The rules: Two movies, made by different filmmakers, released within ten years of each other, that cover strongly related subject matter. I’ve got a list started, but feel free to post any requests below.
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