Written and Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, and Nicholas Campbell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Anyone who is famous deserves to be famous. Celebrity is not an accomplishment. Not at all, it's more like a collaboration that we choose to take part in. Celebrities are not people, they're group hallucinations."
Apparently, they’re rebooting careers now. With David Cronenberg having moved past the mortal coil towards a preoccupation with psychology these days, there’s room for someone to take up the Cronenbergian body horror mantle. Conveniently, there’s another Cronenberg ready to assume the position, as son Brandon enters the family business with Antiviral. I’d say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, but I’m not completely convinced the old man didn’t cook him up in a lab somewhere, so it might be apt to say the mutant growth hasn’t strayed too far from the host body. That’s a compliment, by the way, because Antiviral is a faithful replication of the elder Cronenberg’s oeuvre: it’s a wry, disturbing, socially conscious work that’s quite provocative, even if it’s not quite as esoteric as the father's work.
Cronenberg imagines a semi-dystopian, not-too-distant future where celebrity obsession has metastasized into a cottage industry that allows worshippers to inject themselves with the viruses and pathogens their heroes contract. The Lucas Clinic is a premier firm in this business, as they manage to procure the latest and greatest illnesses and pass them on to the devoted. One of their employees is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a salesman who pitches the viruses as a connection that brings fans closer to the celebrities; on the surface, he’s a model employee, but he’s also earning money on the side by injecting himself with the pathogens and selling them on the black market. When one of the firm’s primary celebrity sources (Sarah Gadon) falls gravely ill, an opportunity for Syd to make big money goes horribly awry and reveals the broader, more sinister workings of this underworld.
You’ve got to give Cronenberg some credit just for the very notion here: it takes a lot of balls to retrace your father’s steps with such faithfulness. It’d be one thing if David had simply been one of the best directors of all time—that would be a tricky enough mountain to climb—but no, he essentially pioneered the very genre in which his son has decided to make his debut. Hell, the family name might as well be synonymous with “weird, fucked-up shit” at this point (I hope that’s on the family crest). Most children would shy away from such a legacy, but Cronenberg embraces it full bore here, going so far as to mimic that distinct, sterile, hyper-bleached aesthetic of his father’s early films (particularly Rabid and Shivers). Antiviral is a very cold, distant film, delivered with clinical, deadpan precision but punctuated by squirm-inducing bursts of physical horrors—simply put, it’s as if someone isolated a strain of early Cronenberg DNA and put it on ice for a few decades before unleashing it and weaving it into this fascinating look at celebrity culture.
Its greatest strength is its director’s imagination and creativity in realizing his dystopia. The world of Antiviral is perhaps a few steps removed from our own and is only pointedly heightened to absurdity. You could easily imagine the 2014 news cycle borrowing the same headlines that scroll across television screens here (particularly the ones concerning celebrity upskirt shots and a countdown of the year’s biggest celebrity ordeals), but people willingly contracting celebrity illnesses is probably still a few years away, I’m guessing. If that central concept weren’t unnerving enough, Cronenberg invokes other ridiculous instances of celeb-worship, such as a market that deals in meat procured by celebrity cells. Imagine going to your local butcher and ordering a half-pound of Tom Cruise. Even more disturbing is how it’s seemingly infected the entire populace—everyone is like Rupert Pupkin in their obsession over stars.
Antiviral doesn’t bring any revelatory insight to this epidemic; whatever commentary it provides is surface level and obvious—of course our own infatuation with celebs has gotten out of control, and this is a logical, wacky extension of that. I’m not so sure Cronenberg intends to provide a cure or any deep awareness, though, as the premise mostly serves as the bizarre background of a pretty rote conspiracy-thriller. Well, as rote as a thriller can be when it involves wilfully contracting diseases and fawning over a sick girl who vomits up blood. The problem is that the dystopian scenario is so strong and intriguing that it all but swallows the proceedings. Whereas the seedy underbelly explored by Max Renn in Videodrome deftly ties into Cronenberg’s exploration of technology and entertainment consumption, the procedural here feels a little grafted on and perhaps even a bit of an afterthought—I found myself very much drawn into the larger world but not so much by the people inhabiting it.
Which isn’t to say the performances or characters are terrible—just merely sort of there as our company in Cronenberg’s fascinatingly bizarre world. Jones is expectedly detached and sickly as Syd, who becomes an increasingly ill as the film progresses; his highly affected, disconnected performance is actually reminiscent of a lot of the turns in D. Cronenberg’s latest films (think Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis but with more vomit involved). Cronenberg continues to invite comparison to his father’s work by casting fellow Cosmopolis alumni Gadon as Hannah Geist, the film’s uber-celeb.
Gadon has an weird, ethereal quality that makes her a perfect match for the enigmatic Geist, who rarely appears but is endlessly chatted about in offices and on television. In what might qualify as the film’s most subtle and insightful musing, Geist is actually a nothing of a character, yet her adherents endlessly pore over her physical beauty (or gossip about her rumored deformities) and insist her looming death to be a tragedy despite not knowing anything about her. Female celebrities are typically subjected to this sort of skin-deep worship, and Cronenberg keeps Geist at a distance, forever on a pedestal, even as she’s wasting away. You get the feeling her passing will be more tragic because her physical beauty will deteriorate; she’s less a person and more a porcelain doll whose cracks are beginning to show.
Casting Nicholas Cambpell (The Brood, The Dead Zone, Naked Lunch) as Syd's boss feels like something of a clincher, though, and leaves you wondering just what Cronenberg is up to here. To have made a film that examines the unhealthy nature of celeb-worship, he’s is ruthlessly reverent of his father’s legacy, almost to the point where you’re forced to assume he’s a little culpable himself. Maybe Antiviral is an elaborate bit of performance art exploring the relationship between artists and their heroes—it’s quite possible to get so wrapped up in your influences that you forget to forge your own path. Or, perhaps in true Cronenbergian fashion, son Brandon has just grafted himself onto a legacy and his worship is something of a distracting tumor threatening to undermine his work. I’m not entirely sure, but I am pretty sure that Antiviral is an auspicious debut in any event, if only because we could always use another Cronenberg who’s committed to giving us familiar shivers. Long live the new flesh—even if it’s the same as the old flesh. Buy it!
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