Welcome to intellectual science fiction, where a parallel universe isn’t the usual, special effects-created alien landscape, but is comprised of an even more exotic and murky terrain: the untapped recesses of the human mind.
In Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar follows the handsome, callow César (Eduardo Noriega) as his privileged life begins to slide into the chaotic realm of dreams. Canadian horrormeister supreme, David Cronenberg, examines manufactured dreams in eXistenZ by focusing on Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the reclusive creator of realer-than-real, virtual reality role-playing games.
Amenábar – who co-wrote the labyrinthine script of Open Your Eyes with Mateo Gil – sees dreams as manifestations of desires and fears, and an important gateway to the roots of identity. So he has César’s story unfold through sessions with a probing, insistent psychiatrist (Chete Lera) who tries to unravel what turned this promising young man into a killer.
Accustomed to always having things go his way, César survives a car accident orchestrated by his jilted lover Nuria (Najwa Nimri), but is horribly disfigured. His once-unshakable friendship with Pelayo (Fele Martínez) crumbles and the beautiful woman he shared one magical romantic evening with, Sofia (Penélope Cruz), reacts with revulsion to his Phantom of the Opera visage and imploring advances.
After he falls headlong into deepest despair, things begin to suddenly turn around. Sofia declares her undying devotion and once-pessimistic doctors announce they can rebuild his shattered face. But is this hopeful future merely a dream?
From the film’s first moments – of César waking from a dream to an existence tinged with a nagging, overwhelming sense of déjà vu – Open Your Eyes flirts with the possibility that nothing onscreen is actually "real." Amenábar creates an enticing cinematic equivalent of dream logic, but falters when it comes to the actual explanation for César’s dilemma. What began as an enticing exploration of perception-as-reality ends with a thud as a sci-fi parable on cheating death and commerce running amok.
Writer-director David Cronenberg explores the tension between market demands and artistic expression in eXistenZ, a topic this idiosyncratic and consummate filmmaker is intimately familiar with. He positions the ultrasuccessful Allegra as the target of a fatwa – a very conscious allusion to Salman Rushdie – because of the radical effects of her work not only on game-players but the culture at large.
An assassination attempt interrupts the focus group tryout of Allegra’s new game, "eXistenZ," and she flees accompanied by a most unlikely bodyguard, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a public relations man for her sponsor, Antenna Research. While they’re on the road in an eerily vacant landscape, Allegra convinces the penetration-phobic Ted to be fitted with a bioport, an orifice created at the base of the spine where the umbilical cord of the game pods can be hooked straight into the human nervous system.
She needs a "friendly" partner to test out the viability of her game, and eXistenZ proceeds as an alternative-reality detective story. Cronenberg effortlessly shifts between the game’s complex internal logic and the bland, lifeless world outside where even once-popular sports like skiing have been supplanted by their virtual counterparts.
With the bioports and game pods, a hybrid of organic and computer components, David Cronenberg continues his fascination with the violation and transformation of the human body (The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash) as well as the bizarro creatures formed by the fevered junkie imagination of Naked Lunch.
There’s also a wonderfully subversive sexuality to the intimate connection between humans and their games, a pleasure principle formed by the fusing of flesh and hardware that creates an ironic eroticism: After plugging-in, the body is rendered immobile while simulated images stimulate the brain.
Both films have a welcome low-tech approach to their brand of science fiction and solid acting that gives these stories a much-needed anchor. Cronenberg’s use of recognizable performers with distinctive personae (Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston, Don McKellar) in small, eccentric roles is off-putting at first, but pays off marvelously in the end, when he pulls a major twist.
Disposable in the best sense of the word, eXistenZ shows the addictive quality of elaborately constructed mind games – coming in our near future – but also demonstrates how much can be accomplished by pulling the plug.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.