“Antiviral” is probably one of the more disgusting films I have seen. Don’t misunderstand. That’s a high compliment. This film made me feel uncomfortable in its first scene and upped the ante repeatedly thereafter. The discomfort came from my increasing disgust with the cultural obsession that this unique film sends up.
This is the first feature film from writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg, whose “Maps to the Stars” was
recently previously reviewed here on Frisco Kid at the Movies Loud Green Bird. If being the son of the Baron of Blood invites comparisons of the son with the father, the fact that “Antiviral” is a science fiction thriller with horror elements adds to this pressure. After all, Cronenberg père directed “The Dead Zone” (1983) and “The Fly” (1986) and both wrote and directed “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983), and “eXistenZ” (1999).
Moreover, like “Maps to the Stars,” “Antiviral” is a critique of Hollywood-style celebrity. However, it’s a much more intense, twisted, sick, and therefore enjoyable one. It’s a reductio ad absurdum of celebrity as something the public consumes voraciously and unthinkingly, like a heroin addict feening for his next fix:
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.
In the world of this film, celebrities are famous for being famous (like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian). Nobody seems to care what his or her favorite star did to become famous. The media-scripted lives of celebrities contrast with the empty lives of their fans, who appear to be addicted to the meaning (however contrived) they derive from their fandoms.
Caleb Landry Jones stars as Syd March, a young employee of the Lucas Clinic. His employer is one of the leading providers of celebrities’ illnesses to their rabid fans. Life has apparently become so meaningless in this near-future dystopia that people pay top dollar to be infected with their favorite star’s viral illnesses. For this purpose, the Lucas Clinic has an exclusive contract with Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), their most popular celebrity. By the way, it is probably not a coincidence that her last name is “Geist,” the German word for “ghost,” “spirit,” and “mind.”
Syd is very good at selling celebrity illnesses to clients, but he is also involved in stealing the “copy-protected” viruses from his employer and selling them to black marketeer Arvid (Joe Pingue). Arvid also runs a profitable and entirely legitimate butcher-shop business that sells meat made of the cloned cells of celebrities, which their fans gobble down (yes, cannibalism at one remove — didn’t already use the adjective “disgusting”?).
High security at the Lucas Clinic makes it difficult for Syd to smuggle out any biological materials. Instead, he infects his own body with the viruses, then harvests them from himself and reverse-engineers the copy protection, using stolen equipment hidden away at home. However, he slips up when he injects himself with Hannah’s viremic blood after collecting a specimen from her in person. Unfortunately for him, the illness proves worse than the usual flu or herpes infection. After Syd falls seriously ill, he hears that Hannah has died from the same malady.
Here’s where things get really freaky — but it would be “major spoilers” to explain in detail. Let’s just say that this film satirizes not only the phenomenon of celebrity per se, but also the corporate profiteers (legal or not) who fuel its “mass hallucinations.” They will stop at nothing to keep the revenue flowing. How will Syd fare when he goes up against such power — even with Hannah’s own corporate entourage, including medical expert Dr. Abendroth (Malcolm McDowell), on his side — as he slowly declines towards a horrible and gruesome death?
Slim and somewhat androgynous in appearance, Caleb Landry Jones steals the show in this film with his portrayal of the amoral, constantly sickly Syd. Moreover, he has great support from the performances of the rest of the cast. Sarah Gadon plays the unreal perfection (even in illness) of Hannah Geist well, all the way to her transformation into an actual Geist of sorts. Malcolm McDowell is creepily convincing as Dr. Abendroth, a man who is intelligent enough to see through the smoke and mirrors of corporate politics and religion, yet still falls easily for the addiction to celebrity. When discussing the subject with Syd (after showing him five celebrity skin grafts on his arm), he explains,
I’m not a spiritual man. The belief in God has always struck me as a sign of dangerous infantilism. But you will forgive me if I tell you that, with each of these patches, my world has become more charged.
On the filmmaking side, this movie is a study in contrasts. The overexposed, antiseptic white of the Lucas Clinic and Syd’s apartment (which provides a strong contrast with blood, by the way) is juxtaposed with a noir-ish Toronto. Cronenberg directs the action in this milieu in a cool and detached manner, sometimes evoking a sense of his father’s work, other times that of other directors (David Lynch, for one, comes to mind). However, the overall film stands on its own as the work of Cronenberg fils, not as a derivative of his father’s or other filmmakers’ work.
“Antiviral” premiered at Cannes in 2012. It went on to win Best Canadian First Feature Film at TIFF, as well as awards at Sitges and the Chicago International Film Festival. Cronenberg has not followed up with a second feature film yet. Personally, I am eager to see more from him, as “Antiviral” is an extremely strong debut film.
Many thanks are due to Billy Crash of Crash Palace Productions and Jonny Numb of Numbviews (the hosts of the excellent horror podcast The Last Knock) for recommending this film after reading my reviews of “Starry Eyes” and “Maps to the Stars.” Excellent call, gentlemen!