Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works at a clinic that sells injections of live viruses harvested from sick celebrities to obsessed fans. On the side he supplies illegal samples of these viruses to piracy groups, smuggling them from the clinic in his own body. When he becomes infected with the disease that kills celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), Syd becomes a target for collectors...
Waves of nausea can be a common audience experience to the films of David Cronenberg (almost always, in the best possible way). Now, it seems, that 'skill’ may be partially genetic with Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg’s none-to-subtle nod to the body-horror masterworks of his father, David (Rabid, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly).
coolly effective, but there’s little insight
Set in a near-future of sterile indoors and grey exteriors, this debut feature from the second generation writer/director explores a society so obsessed with celebrity culture that fans can inject themselves with the diseased cells of unwell starlets to enjoy the thrill of a shared infectious experience. In the opening sequence, we watch as ace salesman Syd March (an anaemic Caleb Landry Jones) injects his latest customer with a herpes virus attained from A-lister Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, a favourite of Cronenberg Snr. with roles in Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method).
Syd has a flourishing black market set up on the side: he sells human tissue to a deli operator (Joe Pingue) who cultivates the cells into slabs of 'celeb steaks’ which are then retailed for human consumption (as disgusting to watch as it sounds). Syd often transports viruses from his workplace to his home via his own veins, and his world begins to implode when, having stolen some of Hannah’s blood to pass off at top dollar, he finds himself gripped by a potentially fatal virus, and soon falls prey to the immoral, ruthless dealings he was so often party to.
As a piss-take of society’s shallow fascination with Kardashian-like nobodies, Antiviral is coolly effective, but there’s little insight into the psychology that drives normal people to fixate on such 'celebrities’. The film is also frustratingly myopic in its vision; Cronenberg Jr. treats the central figure of Geist as, quite literally, a marketable piece of meat, not allowing for any humanity at all in Gadon’s game, mostly bed-ridden, portrayal. This may be the point, of course, but Jones isn’t the most compelling leading man nor is his character particularly endearing, leading to narrative beats that aren’t particularly involving or convincing.
Trypanophobics (fear of needles) would be well advised to steer clear of Antiviral; the director lingers long on all manner of needles, tubes and metallic medical instruments as they become one with tender flesh. More icky (for your not-usually-squeamish reviewer, at least) is the manipulation of tissue and organ and the manufactured cellular strands that DOP Karim Hussain frames with stark, Kubrick-ian frankness.
In the absence of anything truly profound to impart (despite the best efforts of a chatty Malcolm McDowell turning up to blurt out some too-little-to-late bridging logic), the film is most effective as a gruelling body-horror shocker. Whereas his dad has been able to find humour and character in even his darkest, ugliest works and present a fluid and unique cinema language that would define his career, young Brandon wants his film to be a little bit THX-1138, a little bit Tetsuo, a little bit his father’s eXistenZ. It’s an overly ambitious yet all-too-familiar work, but it does exhibit some flourishes that suggest future efforts will be worth a look.