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It cannot have happenend by sheer coincidence that in the first quarter of 1999 two tightly related movie pictures were released - the Wachowski brother's The Matrix and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ - which had (among others) two aspects in common:

  • Both dealt in the essentially same manner with "real" vs. "virtual" reality and thus visualized an important philosophical problem.
  • Both featured the essentially same kind of mechanical plugin to get from the "real" to the "virtual" world and back. In eXistenZ this plugin was called "bioport", in The Matrix there was no name given to it, but it was highly visible.

So there must have been some connections in the genesis of these two movie pictures:

  • Has there been "something in the air" in the late 90s which accidentally influenced both of them?
  • Did they accidentally have the same specific (literary, philosophical, or scientific) model?
  • Or has there eventually been a case of (film) industrial espionage resp. artistical espionage?
  • Or maybe an agreement among artists? ("You strengthen this aspect, I sthrengthen that aspect")
  • Is there no other way conceivable than a bioport to get from the real to the virtual world and back?

Considering that both movie pictures were really big successes – The Matrix more commercially, eXistenZ more cinematically – these questions do deserve an answer.

Has anyone already tried to answer these questions investigatively (not only speculatively)?

As a side question: Which serious comparisons of these to films would you recommend?

I found this a good one: 'eXistenZ' (1999): A Review

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Don't forget 1992's Mindwarp imdb.com/title/tt0100152/?ref_=ttmd_md_nm since it also deals with a population living in a virtual reality, a body-modification at the base of the head to allow access (It's a serial port by budget)... and it's got Bruce Campbell. –  Bon Gart Jul 3 at 1:32
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The Thirteenth Floor was released in May 1999. –  default locale Jul 3 at 6:20
    
Seminal: Welt am Draht and Simulacron-3. –  Martin Schröder Jul 3 at 8:07
    
Cronenberg's Videodrome dealt with similar themes: virtual reality, mind control, terrorism, etc. I've always believed that eXistenZ is an inferior update/reimagining of that movie. –  user8391 Jul 5 at 10:14
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1 Answer 1

Interestingly enough, both films were written by their directors. As for eXistenZ, according to Wikipedia:

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 Fatwah 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 Fatwah against a virtual-reality game designer".

And as for The Matrix, that was probably also being written in 1995 as there is a known 1996 draft of the script.

The fact that both films began years earlier and (since David Cronenberg is Canadian) in different countries, there is little reason to suspect any espionage or even cross-pollination. And while little was said about eXistenZ being derivative in the press, The Matrix has many obvious influences, including some that many people believe to be outright theft. Per Wikipedia:

Reviewers have commented on similarities between The Matrix and other late-1990s films such as Strange Days, Dark City, and The Truman Show. Comparisons have also been made to Grant Morrison's comic series The Invisibles; Morrison believes that the Wachowskis essentially plagiarized his work to create the film. Comparisons have also been made between The Matrix and the books of Carlos Castaneda. The similarity of the film's central concept to a device in the long-running series Doctor Who has also been noted. As in the film, the Matrix of that series (introduced in the 1976 serial The Deadly Assassin) is a massive computer system which one enters using a device connecting to the head, allowing users to see representations of the real world and change its laws of physics; but if killed there, they will die in reality.

So it looks like The Matrix is a hodge-podge of ideas and influences, while eXistenz is more an allegory based on an idea of fearing for your life due to the zealous nature of believers. Both are based on creators as Gods or icons. Neo = The One, prophesied to free mankind, while "the demoness" Allegra Gellar (creator of the game eXistenZ) made something too real, too confusing, and thus invoked the wrath of anti-game zealots. And, according to the Wikipedia article, even the movie's title holds a clue:

András Hámori and Robert Lantos, the two producers of the film (who are both of Hungarian origin) said in an interview that they intentionally hid a pun in the title: "isten" is the word for "God" in Hungarian.

It looks to me like neither movie influenced the other. Granted, The Matrix seems to be influenced by other things, but the central ideas are common enough tropes: Virtual Reality, Searching for freedom, Creators as Gods, etc. There may well have just been "something in the air." Same as when two volcano movies come out the same year. Or the case of Deep Impact and Armageddon coming out within months of each other. Sometimes these things just happen.

As Charles Fort told the world, it steam engines when it's steam engine time. In 1999, it looks like it was bioport time.

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No mention of Mindwarp imdb.com/title/tt0100152/?ref_=ttmd_md_nm from 1992? Lean back in the bed, let the chair plug you in, and live in Virtual Reality for the rest of your life. –  Bon Gart Jul 3 at 1:34
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Like I said, it's a common trope. I don't intend to list them, because it would take too long. Hell, half of cyberpunk is that. –  Meat Trademark Jul 3 at 1:36
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I have seen it. The ideas in that were not new then, either. Many, many, sci-fi plots have revolved around being jacked/plugged/ported/helmeted/etc into a VR/matrix/cyberspace/recording/etc. Granted, that's a good example, but the question was more localised to the two movies covered. I quoted sources, but have no proof that any of the directors in question have seen that movie. It's quite possible that while outlining and working on scripts for Assassins, Bound, and The Matrix, the Wachowskis missed this direct-to-video movie. Besides, the 1976 Doctor Who serial is also similar and older. –  Meat Trademark Jul 3 at 1:59
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I think that the common thread between them is actually William Gibson's book Neuromancer which came out in 1984. It describes connecting to a computer network by connecting to a port at the base of the head, losing the ability to recognize the real world vs virtual, etc. It's widely credited as the seminal work of Cyberpunk and is the inspiration for many of these types of films. –  djmadscribbler Jul 3 at 17:01
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Agreed, but I didn't mention it because it's well covered in the Wiki article I linked to (including positive quotes from Gibson himself). This is the kind of answer that could easily run ten thousand words, but TL;DR, YMMV, etc. As long as it, that was me trying to keep it short. –  Meat Trademark Jul 3 at 20:52
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