Existenz Blu-ray Review
Inception style reality-blurring in typical Cronenberg sci-fi body-horror fashion
Doing for video games what Videodrome did for TV, and what Crash did for pornography David Cronenberg's eXistenZ gleefully plays with 'virtual' reality.Spawned from an interview Cronenberg conducted with Salman Rushdie, who - at the time - had a fatwa on his head for writing a controversial book, Existenz is ostensibly about a video game designer who has extremist assassins after her, intent upon destroying both her and her ground-breaking creation. Whilst this allows Cronenberg to explore the don't trust anybody feel to the narrative, this is still merely a high concept jumping off point which the mischievous director uses as an excuse to start jabbing at society's obsession with increasingly real escapist video-games, which he visualises by having his protagonists dive into their own video game world, and then out, and then in again, until you reach a stage where they - and you - don't know what is real. Hell, given the very first 'assassination' attack happens after a bunch of people plug into the game, the whole damn thing might be a lie, right through to the final twist(s).Presaging Nolan's Inception, but on a much smaller scale (and vastly overshadowed by another 1999's sci-fi film that also blurred reality: The Matrix), Cronenberg plays with his audience whilst he has a game cast (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe) rubbing at body part-shaped organic gaming consoles and interfacing with them through umbilical cord-like plugs straight into their bodies. Oh, that and shooting people with organic fish skeleton guns that fire human teeth. It's Cronenberg on feisty form, far more focused than in his well-intentioned but ultimately messy 1996 effort Crash, and, although it's not as effective as the similarly themed Videodrome, it does serve as a reminder of what audiences will be missing if he really has indeed retired from directing: a man who can reflect upon society's drive towards reality-bending technology through the use of a sci-fi fatwa thriller and an over-healthy dose of body horror.
Picture Quality101 Films unveil their new Black Label series with two flagship titles - David Cronenberg's 1999 horror-twinges sci-fi thriller Existenz, and Stephen Frears' 1990 neo-noir crime drama, The Grifters. Existenz, making its UK Blu-ray debut, is delivered on a Region B-locked UK Blu-ray complete with a 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation in the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 widescreen.
It's hard not to feel like Existenz could have looked better than this.
Whilst this is the film's debut in the UK, it's seen several releases in other territories, including a trio of discs in the States, the last of which was reportedly much maligned for being far too dark. No such problems here, but the remaining issues are nonetheless still present, as Existenz battles source material defects and problematic digital manipulation in clean-up to leave an image that's sporadically decent but - more often than not - rife with evidence of the after-effects of over-enthusiastic application of sharpening tools (see the gas station shot below, for one of the worst offenders).
There are some nice textures on offer, skin and clothing, with decent background observations, but anything that isn't close-up (and even some close-ups) has mild haloing and edge enhancement around the, well, edges. The near-lack of grain should be a warning sign, with the image scrubbed clean, sharpening tools applied and clearly little effort made to replace the organic grain structure present before. This may well be the best presentation of Existenz on the market but that's hardly something to celebrate - it's an ugly picture that something may even make you think the dreaded words DVD upscale, something which, with 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray almost at full throttle now, really shouldn't be an issue with Blu-ray anymore. As stated, there are some nicer close-ups, and shots that remind you that this probably is far better than anything at least UK fans are used to, and there's no denying that Cronenberg's intention was to create this strangely dour futurescape of bland colours and dull tones, and that his style, budget and the period of production likely all contribute towards inherently limited source material, but it's hard not to feel like Existenz could have still looked better than this.
Sound QualityA solid offering, doing a better job than the video.
The accompanying audio comes in two flavours, a lossless LPCM 2.0 stereo track and a lossless LPCM 5.1 mix which will likely be regarded as the preferred choice. The soundtrack affords the film more breadth and scope to its moody, twisted storytelling and blurred reality narrative, lending an ethereal weight to the limited production design and effects, and revelling in the particularly creepy sound effects associated with the body horror and organic gaming pods that squelch and moan as if they were alive. Gunshots (or tooth shots, more often than not), carry weight commensurate to the ammunition used, whilst a striking and brooding score frequently crescendos beneath, heightening the tension for the film's more shocking setpieces. Dialogue comes across clearly and coherently throughout, and overall it's a solid offering, doing a far better job with the material than the video. It's hardly demo or reference territory - not even close - but it's faithful enough to work for the film.
Extras101 Films' flagship Black Label title finally comes into its own with the extra material, affording fans a whole host of additional material, headlined by no less than a trio of Audio Commentaries: an enthusiastic one with film critics Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie; a more dry and technical offering from director David Cronenberg himself; and a further critic commentary by Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thompson.
A whole host of additional material.
There's also a hefty Interview with Christopher Eccleston, The Leader; a Making-of Documentary; a Promo Featurette; a Special Effects Featurette and a series of archival Backstage Interviews with Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Willem Dafoe, as well as Visual Effects Supervisor Jim Isaac and Director David Cronenberg. The package is rounded off by a Trailer.
VerdictA reminder of what audiences will be missing if Cronenberg has indeed retired from directing.
David Cronenberg's surreal sci-fi body horror flick Existenz makes its UK Blu-ray debut courtesy of 101 Films' new Black Label, who deliver a presentation that appears little improved upon the flawed versions in the States (if it's had a new 2K master then the subsequent digital tools implemented have done more harm than good) but at least provide solid audio and an excellent selection of extra features. Fans of the film should still investigate it as this may well end up being the best shape we see the film in for quite some time to come.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £22.99
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