In the near-future, biotechnological virtual reality game consoles known as "game pods" have replaced electronic ones. The pods present "UmbyCords" that attach to "bio-ports", connectors surgically inserted into players' spines . Two game companies, Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics, compete against each other. In addition, a group of "realists" fights both companies to prevent the "deforming" of reality.
Antenna Research's Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a world renowned game designer, is demonstrating her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ to a focus group at a seminar. A realist named Noel Dichter (Kris Lemche) shoots Allegra in the shoulder with an organic pistol he smuggled past security. As Dichter is gunned down by the security team, security guard (and marketing trainee) Ted Pikul (Jude Law) rushes to Geller and escorts her outside.
Geller discovers that her pod, which contains the only copy of eXistenZ, may have been damaged due to an "UmbyCord" being ripped out as the game was being downloaded. To check it, she must plug into the game in tandem with another player she can trust. Allegra manages to convince an initially reluctant Pikul to have a bio-port installed, and takes him to a gas station run by a black-marketeer named Gas (Willem Dafoe) to get it done. Gas deliberately installs a faulty bio-port, which damages the game pod, and reveals his intention to kill Geller for the bounty on her head. However, Pikul shoots him with the rivet gun used to install the port, and the pair make their way to a former ski lodge used by Geller's mentor, Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm). Vinokur and his assistant repair the damaged pod and give Pikul a new bio-port.
Geller and Pikul enter the game, and inside Pikul realizes that it is hard to tell whether their actions are their own intentions or the game's. When they meet D'Arcy Nader (Robert A. Silverman), a video game shop owner, Pikul speaks rudely to him but then expresses surprise at his own rudeness, which Geller informs that it was the doing of his game character. Nader gives them new micro pods Nader to enter a new layer of virtual reality.
Reality becomes more distorted as they gain newer identities as workers at a game pod factory. There, they meet Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar), who claims to be their contact in the Realist underground. Nourish recommends that Pikul order the special for lunch at a Chinese restaurant near the factory. Once in the restaurant, an overwhelmed Pikul pauses the game in order to temporarily get back to the real world, but finds out that he is unable to distinguish the presumed reality from the game's fantasy. Back at the restaurant, Pikul develops an urge to eat the unappetizing special, which turns out to be an assortment of cooked mutant animals. Using the dish's inedible parts, Pikul almost automatedly constructs a pistol like the one used to shoot Geller, which he uses to shoot their Chinese waiter (Oscar Hsu). In keeping with game parameters, the other patrons of the restaurant appear more frozen than shocked, and return to their meals when Pikul tells them it was a simple misunderstanding about the bill. When the pair return to the game store, Hugo Carlaw (Callum Keith Rennie) informs them that Nourish is actually a double agent for Cortical Systematics, and the waiter Pikul murdered was the actual contact. The following day, the two find a diseased pod and devise a plan to sabotage all the game pods in the factory by getting Geller infected and using her to spread the disease. When Geller becomes infected, Pikul frees her by cutting the umbycord. But then Geller almost bleeds to death before Nourish appears with a flame thrower, aiming it at the diseased pod. The pod bursts, releasing deadly spores all over the factory. Before leaving, Geller stabs Nourish in the back.
Geller and Pikul suddenly find themselves back in the ski lodge, and it seems like they have lost the game, and they discover that Geller's game pod is also diseased. Pikul is confused by the disease's crossover from the game into reality. However, Geller immediately notices Pikul rubbing his back and realizes that Vinokur gave Pikul an infected bioport in order to destroy her game. She inserts a disinfecting device into Pikul's bioport. Unexpectedly, Carlaw reappears as a Realist resistance fighter and escorts Geller and Pikul outside to witness the death of eXistenZ. Before Carlaw can kill Geller, he is shot in the back by Vinokur, who is a double agent for Cortical Systematics. He informs Geller that he copied her game data while he was fixing her pod. In revenge, she kills Vinokur. Pikul then reveals that he himself was sent to kill her; he is a Realist. But she informs him that she knew of his true intentions ever since he pointed the gun at her in the Chinese restaurant, so she kills him by detonating the disinfecting device in his bioport by remote control.
In yet another unexpected twist, the two are then shown sitting on a stage together with the main players from the game. It turns out that the story itself is in fact a virtual reality game called "tranCendenZ" played by the cast. This is enforced by more natural acting, and less formulaic dialogue, along with cutaways from Geller and Pikul. Another difference occurs when it is revealed that players are using electronic devices rather than game pods. The real game designer, Nourish, feels uneasy because the game started with the assassination of a game designer and had an overall anti-game theme that he suspects originated from the thoughts of one of the testers. Pikul and Geller approach him (with Pikul's pet dog close by) and ask him if he should pay for his crimes of deforming reality. As Nourish's assistant Merle calls for security, Pikul and Geller grab pistols hidden under the dog's false mane and shoot Nourish and Merle to death. As in the restaurant scene, the other players appear more frozen than shocked. As Pikul and Geller leave, they aim their guns at the person who played the Chinese waiter, who first pleads for his life, then asks if they are still in the game. The last shot is of Pikul and Geller standing together in wide-eyed silence.Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller
Jude Law as Ted Pikul
Ian Holm as Kiri Vinokur
Don McKellar as Yevgeny Nourish
Callum Keith Rennie as Hugo Carlaw
Sarah Polley as Merle
Christopher Eccleston as the Seminar Leader
Willem Dafoe as Gas
Robert A. Silverman as D'Arcy Nader
Oscar Hsu as Chinese Waiter
Kris Lemche as Noel Dichter
Vik Sahay as Male Assistant
The film's plot came about after Cronenberg conducted an interview with Salman Rushdie for Shift magazine in 1995. At the time, Rushdie was in hiding due to a Fatwa being put on his life by Muslim extremists due to his controversial book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie's dilemma gave Cronenberg an idea of "a Fatwa against a virtual-reality game designer". Existenz was originally pitched to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but they did not green-light the film due to its complex structure.Christopher Priest wrote the tie-in novel to accompany the movie Existenz, the theme of which has much in common with some of Priest's own novels.
In 1999, a graphic novel credited to David Cronenberg and Sean Scoffield was published.
The film received generally positive reviews, with a 71% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Berlin Film FestivalWon, Silver Bear: David Cronenberg
Nominated, Golden Bear: David Cronenberg
Amsterdam Fantastic Film FestivalWon, Silver Scream: David Cronenberg
Genie AwardsWon, Best Achievement in Editing: Ronald Sanders
Nominated, Best Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design: Carol Spier, and Elinor Rose Galbraith
Nominated, Best Motion Picture: David Cronenberg, Robert Lantos, and Andras Hamori
Golden Reel AwardsNominated, Best Sound Editing in a Foreign Feature: David Evans, Wayne Griffin, Mark Gingras, John Laing, Tom Bjelic, and Paul Shikata
Saturn AwardsNominated, Best Science Fiction Film (lost to The Matrix)