eXistenZ (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Feb 28, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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eXistenZ (4K UHD Review)


David Cronenberg

Release Date(s)

1999 (January 30, 2024)


Alliance Atlantis (Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: A-

eXistenZ (4K UHD)

Buy it Here!


While Tron may have been responsible for introducing mainstream moviegoing audiences to virtual worlds in 1982, the concept of virtual reality didn’t really take hold in the popular consciousness until the Nineties with films like Total Recall, The Lawnmower Man, Strange Days, Virtuosity, Johnny Mnemonic, and especially The Matrix. Yet only David Cronenberg could have conceived of virtual reality as body horror. His 1999 film eXistenZ takes the biomechanical nightmare of Neo waking up from his coma in The Matrix and runs with it for a full 97 minutes—it’s visceral reality instead of virtual reality. Yet in this case, those biomechanical horrors bleed into both sides of reality, blurring the lines between the two. One staple of illusion vs. reality films is that it can be difficult to tell which is which, but in eXistenZ, there’s little practical difference. One of the players(?) even asks the others, “Hey, tell me the truth... are we still in the game?” There’s no real answer to that question, because just as there is spoon in The Matrix, there is no top layer of reality in eXistenZ. We’re all players of one variety or another.

Cronenberg’s script takes place in an alternate reality of its own where rival game companies have created biological gaming systems called Pods that use umbilical cords to port into the spinal columns of their users, uploading the games directly into their consciousness. The story opens with renown game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) testing her latest creation with a focus group at a remote location. Everything goes sour when a member of a group of anti-VR insurgents is able to sneak a gun through security because it’s made of organic materials and fires human teeth instead of bullets. He wounds Geller, forcing her to go on the run with only a hapless publicist named Ted Pikul (Jude Law) to protect her. Her Pod is damaged in the attack, so she asks Pikul to jack into it with her to see if the game has been corrupted. Yet it quickly become difficult to tell whether they’re playing the game, or being played by it. eXistenZ also stars Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston, and Don McKellar.

As that description should make clear, both virtual reality and gaming culture are little more than the means to an end in eXistenZ, not necessarily an end unto themselves. Cronenberg had at best a rudimentary understanding of how video games work, and his attempt at establishing the structure of the game world that he presents displays more dream logic than it does game logic. Of course, nothing in eXistenZ can be taken at face value, which is something that’s true of Cronenberg’s filmography as a whole. There’s a frequently overlooked element of absurdist comedy present in many of his films, and he may have intended the clumsy gameplay elements in eXistenZ to be satirical. That’s definitely true of the way that the game’s story unfolds, with Pikul asking Geller if he can get a bio-port installed at a local country gas station, and the next scene has the two of them visiting one that’s actually named Country Gas Station. Even the attendant (Dafoe) is named Gas, and yes, however incongruous it may seem, he’s perfectly capable of installing the port.

Yet setting aside the humor of the scene, the game ports really are the point of entry into the world of eXistenZ, in more ways than one. While games are an important part of the story, this isn’t a film about gaming, and it’s not really a film about virtual reality, either. eXistenZ does raise questions about perception vs. reality, technology vs. biology, and determinism vs. free will, but at its gruesomely beating heart, this is still pure body horror. The fleshy game pods and the organic weaponry that are used here would have looked perfectly appropriate after reality goes off the rails in Videodrome, and the concern with violation of bodily integrity follows right on the heels of the likes of Dead Ringers and Crash. Pikul tells Geller that he doesn’t have a bio-port because he has a phobia about having his body penetrated, and that simple statement may be the single best summation of David Cronenberg’s entire career. His body horror is all about the fear of penetration and bodily degradation—bodily violation, in one form or another. For all of the virtual reality trappings, eXistenZ isn’t really trying to mess with our heads; Cronenberg’s real targets were a bit lower than that. Jacking in has never been this visceral.

Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky shot eXistenZ on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version utilizes a 4K scan from the interpositive, cleaned up and grade for High Dynamic Range in HDR10 only. This release serves as a great reminder that while having access to the original negative may be ideal, a second-generation element like an interpositive can still do wonders, even in 4K. This is a gorgeous master, sharp and crystal-clear. The opening scene alone has beautifully well-resolved fine textures like Jude Law’s fleece jacket, the imperfections in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s complexion, and the grass and gravel as they leave the building. That level of detail carries through the rest of the film. The contrast range is generally excellent, although it does run a little hot in just a few shots—Leigh’s face verges on being blown out in a couple of the long shots of her on stage at the beginning. The varied color palette of eXistenZ has been reproduced accurately here, ranging from drab and monochromatic to vividly saturated, depending on the scene. (Just don’t be complacent in thinking that reality and fantasy are clearly color-coded in the film, because Cronenberg throws in plenty of visual red herrings along the way.) eXistenZ may take place in virtual worlds, but the look of this transfer is always natural and filmic.

Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. eXistenZ was released theatrically in 5.1 Dolby Digital, and while the 2.0 track does appear to have Dolby Stereo matrix-encoded surround channels, the 5.1 track is the only way to fly. While the mix tends to focus on the front channels, the surrounds do provide ambient sound effects like birds, insects, and thunder. Yet once the uprising begins, everything becomes fully directional, with the sounds of gunfire and explosions coming from all around the viewer. Howard Shore’s characteristically ominous score is reproduced well. It’s not the most aggressively immersive mix, but by David Cronenberg standards, it’s still quite good.

Vinegar Syndrome’s Standard Edition 4K Ultra HD release of eXistenZ is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film as well as most of the extras. It was also offered in a Limited Edition that included a flesh-textured slipcase/slipcover combo (designed by Haunt Love) as well as a 40-page booklet with essays by Justin LaLiberty and Jon Dieringer. That was limited to 10,000 units, and it sold out quickly, so the Standard Edition may be the only option that doesn’t involve scalper pricing. It does at least still offer a reversible insert. The following new and archival extras are included:


  • Audio Commentary with Jennifer Moorman
  • Audio Commentary with David Cronenberg
  • Audio Commentary with Peter Suschitzky
  • Audio Commentary with Jim Isaac


  • Audio Commentary with Jennifer Moorman
  • Audio Commentary with David Cronenberg
  • Audio Commentary with Peter Suschitzky
  • Audio Commentary with Jim Isaac
  • Crafting (un)Reality (HD – 22:12)
  • Frankenstein Syndrome (HD – 9:24)
  • Sticking with Genius (HD – 10:25)
  • The Art of the Title (HD – 7:00)
  • Frame by Frame: The Invisible Art of Production Designer Carol Spier (Upscaled SD – 48:29)
  • Archival Promotional Featurette (Upscaled SD – 11:09)
  • Archival Special Effects Featurette (Upscaled SD – 3:52)
  • Promotional & Behind-the-Scenes Still Gallery (HD – 3:24)
  • Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:11)
  • Archival EPK Interviews:
    • David Cronenberg (Upscaled SD – 4:15)
    • Jude Law (Upscaled SD – 14:46)
    • Jennifer Jason Leigh (Upscaled SD – 1:25)
    • Willem Dafoe (Upscaled SD – 7:03)
    • Jim Isaac (Upscaled SD – 27:48)

The commentaries mix one new track with three archival ones. The new commentary features author and Fordham University scholar Jennifer Moorman, who specializes in gender, sexuality, race, class, and dis/ability in film, television, and online media. She describes her commentary as being an analytical one, and it’s definitely that. She approaches the film primarily from a thematic perspective, analyzing its style in terms of how it relates to those themes. She says that eXistenZ isn’t trying to show a literal version of the future, but rather a metaphorical one—the technology in it feels simultaneously advanced and primitive. She also makes the interesting observation that the attacks against Allegra Geller unintentionally foreshadowed the misogynistic hostility that would manifest during Gamergate nearly two decades later.

The three archival commentaries were originally recorded for the 1999 Alliance DVD release in Canada and the Fox/Alliance Atlantis DVD in the U.K. (The Dimension DVD in the U.S. was bare bones.) David Cronenberg breaks the film down on a scene-by-scene basis, explaining his thoughts behind the story and why he made the choices that he did. He offers some practical stories about making the film, and also explains the existential philosophy behind the story. (Unsurprisingly, he says that he read Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author while he was writing the screenplay.) Peter Suschitzky’s commentary focuses more narrowly on his own wheelhouse. He talks about his background with Cronenberg (eXistenZ was his fifth collaboration with the director), and then explains how he shot things, including how he varied the lighting for the opening and closing parallel scenes. He says that every film with Cronenberg has been a different experience, eXistenZ no less so than the others. Finally, visual effects supervisor Jim Isaac fills on the gaps on the effects works in eXistenZ (in his case, it was his third collaboration with Cronenberg). While he primarily oversaw the practical effects in the film, it was the first time that they incorporated digital effects as well.

The rest of the new extras consist of recently-conducted interviews. Crafting (un)Reality is with art director Tamara Deverell, who explains her background in the business and how she started working with production designer Carol Spier. She says that Cronenberg brings out the best in all of his collaborators. Frankenstein Syndrome is with makeup effects artist Stephen Dupuis, who describes his own background and his work with Cronenberg. He says that the pods started out as something relatively technical, but under Cronenberg’s guidance, they gradual turned more fleshy and organic. Sticking with Genius is with producer Robert Lantos, who first met Cronenberg at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, but didn’t start working with him until Crash in 1996. Finally, The Art of the Title is with title designer Robert Pilichowski, who breaks down the layers involved with the titles in eXistenZ.

The archival extras open with Frame by Frame: The Invisible Art of Production Designer Carol Spier, which also was created for the original Alliance DVD releases of eXistenZ. It’s effectively a making-of featurette that includes behind-the-scenes footage from the film as well as interviews with Spier, Cronenberg, and other members of the cast and crew. Her work with Cronenberg is a genuine collaboration between the two; he says that she’s involved with every single aspect of the production except for casting—and he still discusses that with her as well. The Archival Promotional Featurette and Archival Special Effects Featurette are basic EPK material, offering the same blend of interviews with behind-the-scenes footage, but lacking the depth. The Archival EPK Interviews are extended versions of the same interviews that are included in the featurettes, and while most of them don’t offer much more detail, the one with Jim Isaac is actually pretty extensive, and serves as something of a making-of featurette of its own.

The balance of the extras is filled out by a Still Gallery and a Theatrical Trailer that looks like it’s really a home video trailer from Alliance. That’s pretty much all of the previously available extras minus a few exclusive ones that were created for the 2018 Limited Edition Blu-ray release from 101 Films in the U.K. That included an interview with Christopher Eccleston, as well as two different commentary tracks: the first with Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie, and the second with Nathaniel Thompson and Edward Samuelson. It also offered slipcase packaging and a booklet featuring essays by Alex Morris and Philip Escott. The only other missing extras are the isolated score track and some B-roll footage that were included on the 2017 Blu-ray release from Ledick Filmhandel in Germany. As usual, you may want to hang onto those set for the sake of completeness, but in all other regards this Vinegar Syndrome version trumps everything else. It’s got the most comprehensive collection of extras, and the new 4K presentation puts all others to shame—it’s damned near reference quality. The horrors of the body have rarely looked this pretty.

- Stephen Bjork

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