Cronenberg is an interesting man. I have read everything from short pieces to long books by people who love him to death. But they seem to only love one side of him. This is the side that fetishizes human organs and wounds and makes unique contraptions that send a normal person for the hills. But Cronenberg is much more than the gross out dark humor and crazy science fiction angles, he is a true visionary that a lot of people take for granted. I say this because this is one of Cronenberg movies that gets overlooked the most. Maybe it is because of Jude Law or maybe it is because the story sort of just tapers off without having a real gain busters ending. But I think that this movie is overlooked because it straddles the strange yet compelling line a little too much.
Before I defend this movie (spoiler alert: I really liked it!), I wanted to tell you about what kind of movie we are dealing with. We open in on a planet that is a couple of years in the future. A young woman named Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a game developer who is attending a conference to debut her new game. A group of really excited youths gathers only to see Allegra almost die. She is saved by an assassin that used a gun made of flesh and blood by a marketing trainee, played by Jude Law. They go on the run in a game obsessed world. They talk a lot about what gaming means and why people love it so much. Allegra becomes insistent that Jude Law plays her game to she can gauge whether or not to trust him. She then finds out that he has never had a bio port installed before. So they go to a local gas station and get the port installed by a super fan (played by the wonderfully manic Willem Defoe). Jude Law reluctantly agrees only to have his port poisoned by this super fan that really wants the money associated with killing Allegra and destroying her new game. They escape by the skin of their teeth only to enter her game once more, this time with a little barrier. They play this game and it becomes real life for them. This is where all the cool organic gadgetry enters the picture. Allegra moves around with confidence and is never surprised by anyone or any new development. She discovers through a series of events that she is being hunted by a movement that wants to destroy all alternate reality in the world. The alternate reality and real life morph into each other and confusion as to what is real and what is not is explored.
Cronenberg isn’t just commenting on our ever-increasing dependence on gaming. He is commenting on our uncanny ability to separate from reality whenever possible. The people in this movie chose gaming as their escape, but it could have been movies that they escaped with or drugs or music or really anything. When we fantasize we make up whole alternate universes up for ourselves. We are skinnier, more educated, more successful than in real life. We see things in a different light in our fantasies. But this different light can sometimes betray us. We can lose control and have the fantasy take over our real lives. We become less likely to take chances or do anything to comprise our fantasy despite the fact that it isn’t real. I get all of this from one minor character and one line that seems to be the thrust of this film. While Allegra and her marketing trainee body-guard are in the gas station, they talk to the grease monkey who works there (Willem Defoe). He says that before he discovered one of Allegra’s games he was just a gas station owner. The reason why this works so well is not just because Defoe is amazing and can commit and deliver even the most oddest lines with true sincerity. It is because he is still just a gas station owner to an outside eye. But in his mind he is so much more. And that fantasy is all because he has played a game. In this fantasy world I am sure he is rich and clean but in real life he is neither. This line also give punch to the betrayal he commits in the next scene.
Cronenberg has an uncanny knack for making a great universe. Everything seems to be accidental yet thoroughly thought out. Everything from the gaming console that is shaped like a weird kidney apparatus and is turned on by massaging one of it nodules to the organic gun that shoots teeth instead of real bullets are mare possible by the convincing world built around it. It is only natural that there is a umbillical cord that attached you to your console or that whole factories can be put into an old ski lodge. Although this movie can be confusing sometimes, if you just trust Cronenberg like I do you know that you will be able to come away with rich material to think about.