Controversial Blus: Is It Time To Update eXistenZ? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

David Cronenberg fans, you've got a tough choice in front of you. Do you want the Canadian special edition DVD of eXistanZ from Alliance Atlantic, or the newer US blu-ray from Echo Bridge? If that sounds like a no-brainer to you, I daresay you don't know all the facts, because it's a difficult compromise either way. And it can't even be fully resolved by buying both. Oh, and the only other options are even worse, so until Criterion or Arrow dive in to rescue this film with a fancy new version (don't hold your breath), it's really down to these two.

Update 10/26/15 - 6/12/18: There's a brand new, fancy blu-ray edition on the market, from the UK's 101 Films.  And, well, I'm not sure it makes the choice any less tough.  It really just adds more complications.  So let's see if we can make sense of it all, shall we?
Frankly, I'd be more bothered by our limited selection if eXistenZ was a stronger film. It feels like a halfhearted attempt to re-capture the magic of Videodrome, only updating television with video games. But it's far more conventional, not wild and trippy at all; and all the sci-fi concepts feel like well-worn tropes we've seen and heard many times over, most obviously in The Matrix which came out the same year. There are a couple compelling images that feel like top shelf Cronenberg... a man is given a large plate of fish at a Chinese restaurant. He eats the flesh off of them and then uses their bones to create a makeshift gun that fires teeth and uses it to shoot the waiter. Unfortunately, that and comparable moments add up to maybe 98 seconds of this film's otherwise dull 98 minute running time.

We're introduced to Jennifer Jason Leigh an eccentric genius video game designer who's debuting her latest virtual reality system to a small room full of suburbanites. A teenager tries to assassinate her, but her socially awkward bodyguard, Jude Law, rushes her off the premises. They hide out in a small hotel where Leigh tells him that they have to play her game to unlock secrets or something, and the majority of the film takes place within her video game world, which looks like the same brown warehouse redressed to be every location in the film. There's an amazing supporting cast, including Ian Holme, Willem Dafoe, Don McKellar, Last Night's Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polley and Robert Silverman, who's my favorite recurring supporting cast member of Cronenberg's work. But they're all wasted playing cartoonish video game characters with silly dialogue and incredibly fake accents. The accents are intentional; it's written into the script that our leads point out several times how unconvincing the video game characters are, especially their accents. But it still means nobody winds up giving a dramatically compelling performance. They could've just as well filled these parts with unknowns. Well, except Dafoe - he was nice and creepy.
And the leads aren't much better. Jude Law sure wasn't the actor he is today. And Leigh, well, I think you can blame the writing for her part. The script's really to blame for everything. Cronenberg's created a whole new, virtual reality world that's supposedly run by the human nervous system and re-engineered fish parts, and it's the most boring place in the world. It's basically the inside of a big cardboard box. If "eXistenZ" were an actual video game, it would be a huge flop. And the film only ever asks one question: are we in the game, reality, or a game within the game? You know, like Inception or one of those. But there are never any stakes either way. Who's real, who's fake, who's lying, who's double-crossing who? Everything's so disconnected, it never matters. I think the central issue we're supposed to be invested in is whether Leigh can save her game from mysterious saboteurs (who very well might not even exist), so she can get it into stores by release date? Um, okay.
Still, it's hard to resist all the talent involved. And this film does have its moments... did I mention the fish-bone gun? And it's Cronenberg returning to psychological science-fiction and body horror, which is everything his fans were begging him for back in 1999. It's just unfortunate that a bunch of people who know and care nothing about video games decide to write and film a movie about the subject that probably interests them least in the world (you'll see when you watch the extras... Tarzan knew more about computers than these folk). So it's weak Cronenberg, but it's still Cronenberg. Worth a watch, and depending on your degree of dedication, still worth having in your collection.

So what do we have again? Well, when this was first issued on DVD, it was a new release film, and fans were very let down that all we got in the US was a barebones disc from Buena Vista/ Dimension. But in-the-know fans quickly figured out that the situation was much better in Canada, where it was released with three audio commentaries and a 54-minute documentary! It's pretty rare that Canada will have unique extras apart from their US counterparts, but I guess Cronenberg being a Canadian filmmaker stirred up some local pride.

But, still, 1999 is very old in DVD terms, and as we'll see shortly, this film has been looking very much in need of an update. And what label came to our rescue? Well, uh, Echo Bridge did. They came out with their own little special edition blu in the US, which, as you might suspect given the company, is a little less than perfect. It also went out of print rather quickly, and despite having been issued in 2012, now routinely goes for $40-50 on Amazon and EBay. Is it worth it?  Or maybe you'd prefer one of the newer blu-rays.  There was an equally pricey mediabook released in Germany, and using the same master, last year.  And now 101 Films has just released a UK edition (a blu-ray/ DVD combo-pack, by the way), the second in their new "Black Label" series.
1) 1999 Buena Vista DVD 2) 1999 Alliance DVD 3) 2012 Echo Bridge blu
4) 2018 101 Films DVD 5) 2018 101 Films blu
Where to begin? Well, the framing is 1.78:1 on the blus and slightly pillar-boxed to about 1.74:1 on the older DVDs (the 101 DVD matches the 101 blu, naturally), giving the latter a little extra vertical information and leaving the blu feeling a bit tight and probably not how Cronenberg intended. But the Canadian DVD is chock full of haloing, over-sharpening, high contrast and even crushed blacks. It may've been passable for 1999 - hey, at least it's anamorphic, right? The US DVD doesn't have any of those problems, and it's anamorphic too, but it's pretty soft and compressed. Looking at the US DVD makes you understand the Canadians' temptation to try and artificially sharpen it.

Meanwhile the HD versions look pretty low-fi and compressed; but compared to the DVDs, they do show a readily apparent improvement. I've seen complaints online about the brightening, but I prefer it. I think it's the darker picture that's incorrect. I mean, you just can't look at those two shots of Leigh by the pump and say you prefer the second one. Even there, the blus have some edge enhancement and other imperfections, but compared to the Alliance DVD, it's a revelation.  To cut to the chase, all these discs seem to be using the same master, with just very slight framing adjustments.  The blu-rays are naturally a bit clearer than the DVDs, and the Alliance disc has a few extras flaws.  But basically we're looking at a lot of repetition between transfers, and if anyone was hoping any of the newer editions were going to "save" this picture and give us a real boost in PQ... sorry, folks.
1) 1999 Buena Vista DVD 2) 1999 Alliance DVD 3) 2012 Echo Bridge blu
4) 2018 101 Films DVD 5) 2018 101 Films blu
Except for one thing.  Look at the above set of shots... The Echo Bridge blu-ray is interlaced! Yuck, even the old DVDs didn't have that problem, and it's really hard to ignore on Echo Bridge's disc. I guess here is where I should mention that Echo Bridge also released Existenz on blu as part of a combo-pack with some other movies. They're the kind of budget releases EB is known for; but they announced that even those those earlier discs were 1080i; this 2012 solo blu-ray was supposed to be 1080p. Sounded great, but nope! Jokes on us, it's "i," too.  But thankfully, the 101 release (and reportedly the German release as well) corrects this issue and isn't interlaced at all.

At least their claim to have added a new 5.1 audio mix is true, which tops the 2.0 stereo track of their past packs, and the lossy 5.1 mixes on the DVDs.  101 Also gives us both the 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both in lossless LPCM on the blu.  All versions also feature optional English subtitles except the Echo Bridge disc.
Extras-wise, as I say, Alliance killed it. That documentary is specifically about Carol Spier, the film's production designer. So if you're hoping for an eXistenZ making-of, it's a little disappointing; but it's a pretty interesting feature in its own right, and with the three commentaries - including one by Cronenberg himself, one by effects supervisor Jim Isaac, and one by DoP Peter Suschitzky - it adds up to a pretty great special edition. It's also got the trailer, which the EB blu is missing.

Echo Bridge of course didn't port over any of Alliance's features. But they stepped things up from their previous, barebones combo-packs by including three vintage interviews exclusive to their new blu. The best is an almost 30-minute piece with Isaac, who's got a ton of props and creations to show off. Then there are interviews with Jude Law and Willem Dafoe. Law's fun because it's a big get, but Dafoe's a little more interesting when he talks about his craft. Unfortunately a lot of time is wasted in both of their interviews asking them if they like video games or using the computer, which they don't but still stumble their way through long, rambling answers. The parts where they talk about the film itself are interesting, though.

Oh, and the US DVD has nothing but the trailer and an insert.
But here's where things get interesting.  The new 101 release drops and adds a whole bunch of features to make another very distinct set.  They carry over the David Cronenberg commentary and the Spiers documentary from the Alliance disc.  Oh, and the trailer.  But they drop the other two commentaries.  However, they do carry over the three interviews from the Echo Bridge blu.  And, most interestingly of all, they've created some cool, new special features.

First of all, they add two, new audio commentaries with film critics/ scholars.  One with Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie, the other with Nathaniel Thompson and Edwin Samuelson.  I found myself drawn in more by the latter, but both are pretty good.  And there's a brand new, on camera interview with Christopher Eccleston, which is quite good, talking about his experiences filming and his take on Cronenberg in general.  Then, they've also dug up a vintage 'making of' featurette, which is cool because it gives us some behind-the-scenes footage and interview clips with a few actors we don't otherwise hear from, like Don McKellar, Ian Holme and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  And they also pull out a few interview clips from the featurette (and the Jim Isaac talk) as separate clips.  They're the same, redundant video clips, but I guess it's for convenience if you just want to hear Cronenberg or Leigh's takes without watching the whole thing.

101's set also comes in an attractive slip box with an impressive booklet.  The book features a note from the president of 101 films, a glossary of eXistenZ terminology, notes by Alex Morris and most interestingly, an interview with Denise Cronenberg.  It has the look and feel of a fancy Criterion release, where the full color booklet has a proper spine and is housed outside the amary case.  And unlike the German mediabook, of course, all the text is in English, which is always a plus.
So, what does one do?  Just about every release has unique extras.  The blu-rays look better than the DVDs, but they're all fairly underwhelming.  And Echo Bridge has that distracting interlacing problem.  What I'd say is this: if you've already sprung for the German media book, then leave it at that, unless you're a die-hard fan and need all the special features.  If you've got the old Alliance DVD, the 101 release is the best way to upgrade because you'll get the HD and the total set of extras.  But if you haven't got this movie at all yet, it's a bit of a tie between the German and UK blus, basically depending which set of extras is more exciting to you (and maybe whichever is easier and cheaper to get your hands on).  Really, what this film needs is a new friggen' scan, and you might still want to hold off on getting any of these blus in the hopes of a Criterion or Arrow finally doing it justice.  But that might be a very long wait.

3 comments:

  1. Does anyone know what the HD quality of the Amazon streaming version is like?

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  2. Any plans to add the limited German Blu? The caps-a-holiday comparison shows some pretty stark contrasts...

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    1. I don't think I'm going to spring for it, but I have had my eye on it... looks like roughly the same transfer, but with much better compression and no interlacing issues. And I like that it combines the extras from both previous editions. But it's pretty pricey.

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