A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Charles Babbage’s difference engine, 1822
On this day in 1822, Charles Babbage presented a paper to the British Royal Astronomical Society. It was called “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables”. What he was proposing was, in effect a mechanical computer. First conceived in 1786 by JH Müller, an engineer in the Hessian army, the difference engine was of interest to governments because it allowed them to produce tables (of whatever sort – tides, for instance) much more economically. To this end, in 1823 the British government gave Babbage £1,700 to make his engine. By 1842 they had given him more than £17,000 and there still was no machine. Partly this was because Babbage got bogged down in the detail, partly because he’d moved on to another project (the analytical engine) and partly because it was difficult, using the technology of the day, to work to the tolerances that the difference engine required. The difference engine was only completed in 1991, with the ancillary printer (Babbage’s plan was to print direct from the machine, avoiding the errors introduced by typesetters – another astonishing concept) only finished in 2000. Both machines worked perfectly.
eXistenZ (1999, dir: David Cronenberg)
You used to know what you were getting with David Cronenberg. Generally roaming the territory where technological and the human body intersected, to gruesome effect, his films such as Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, Crash and The Fly all featured people being subject to what became known as “body horror”.
These days Cronenberg has broadened his range to make fragrant delights such as the Jung/Freud costume drama A Dangerous Method, but back in the day “body horror” and Cronenberg were pretty much synonymous, even though other people (such as Shin’ya Tsukamoto, with his Tetsuo films) were wading in the same water.
What make eXistenZ interesting is that it’s effectively his last gambol through the ooze where metal meets flesh, a fun bit of sci-fi about a computer game virgin being inveigled by the creator of a video game creator into “testing” it for her. Jude Law plays the neophyte, Ted, Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra, the uberprogrammer whose dabblings in the territory some say is reserved for God have earned her a fatwa from fundamentalist “Realists”. And of course Allegra has more in mind for the slightly blank Ted than just quickly going through the motions. They enter the reality of eXistenZ, a computer program so vivid that it feels and looks, even tastes, like another world. “Reality is all a construct” is the big idea, lifted from philosophy and worked into … I was going to say a meditation, but in fact Cronenberg is more turning the idea this way and that, seeing which way the light bounces off it most acutely.
So after Law and Leigh enter the game they end up at a Chinese restaurant, where they order the special and it turns out to be very special indeed – strong stomach warning. From here Cronenberg takes us to the “gristle gun” scene, in which Law constructs a weapon out of body parts, an echo of the “bioport” we’ve already been introduced to (like a USB socket straight into the small of the back), a foretaste of the bullet in Allegra’s shoulder which turns out to be a tooth.
As I said, there’s a rough and ready aspect to Cronenberg’s first entirely original screenplay since Videodrome, which was prompted by the ructions over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent fatwa that put its author under a death sentence. But if it started in Cronenberg’s mind as an exploration of fundamentalism and relativism, it soon morphed into prime cuts of organic tech fantasy. Released around the same time as The Matrix, its special effects and its conceptual reach pale in comparison with the Wachowskis’, but Cronenberg’s film is ageing well, and in any case when you’ve got so much yucky content, who wants to see it all pin sharp? Enjoy.
- A good cast – feisty Jennifer Jason Leigh, detached Jude Law
- The slick trick ending
- Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston and Sarah Polley in the support cast
- Carol Spier’s carnal production design
eXistenZ – Watch it now at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014