If nothing else, Brandon Cronenberg has been quite unafraid to make a film that could pass for an earlier one of his father’s. Antiviral boasts a fertile premise that ties biological interference to celebrity obsession, is very handsomely mounted, and features a fine, committed performance from Caleb Landry Jones in the lead. But the title rings hollow as an antidote to the modern woes depicted on screen, or as representative of any of the characters’ actions or motivations – like the film itself, catchy, but little more than superficially thought-provoking.
The potentially satirical elements are presented as caricature, rather than as prophesy or caution. In a classy, sterile white clinic, Syd Marsh is some sort of technician involved in the (big) business of infecting fans with viruses purchased direct from the bodies of their favorite celebrities, a form of biological communion. Billboards, posters, and video screens depicting luminous celeb Hannah Geist proliferate (famous for what? It’s really not important); TV sets are permanently tuned to the hyperbolically invasive entertainment news; and one can even go to the butcher’s shop to purchase Hannah Geist steaks, amongst others, grown directly from the celebrities’ muscle cells.
This is all deftly set up, as a not-too alternate and all-too-believable version of our present culture, and once established, is no longer of any great concern – a caricature is a sketch with little depth after all. The substance of the film is an intrigue of industrial espionage: Marsh, for reasons that are never entirely clear, infects himself with celebrity viruses, and when he shoots up a particularly nasty one from Geist, various other parties are keen to get their hands on it. Malcolm McDowell turns up as an avuncular doctor; Marsh is beaten, kidnapped, escapes. The “bad guys” get what they want, which doesn’t seem to matter much in a world already so debased by celebrity worship, and Marsh we must conclude is some sort of über-fan of la Geist, although he’s played that particular card close to his chest throughout.
As this sort of thriller with a provocative backdrop, the film works reasonably well, despite a tendency to repetition and semi-lyrical longueurs. It’s finely shot by Karim Hussein, with frequently arresting framing and a profusion of queasy injection close-ups; the production design is terrific, with some fun gizmos: the complex machine that analyses blood throws up on a video console the “face” of the virus, in the form of a distorted human visage à la Francis Bacon; and there’s some suitably goopy bio-engineering projects that culminate in a truly eerie specimen.
This particular specimen is the subject of (rather over-milked) vampirism, and in this final moment of the film, it is brought clearly to our attention how under-exploited the premise has been; the created world rings true, but one longs for some of Cronenberg père’s obsessiveness and conjuring of genuine horror from the biological modifications taking place. Instead, engagement is kept at a distance (again, a symptom of caricature) and Marsh’s motivations are kept pretty firmly under wraps – the first question any audience is likely to ask is, why the hell is he infecting himself? Why does he keep walking through an oppressive room of flowers to a woman either sleeping or dead? Why does he keep a face console in his wardrobe? To the last, for some unspecified black market activity; the flower room is a sort of fantasy prediction of his meeting with Geist; and in the end his fandom is made clear. The psychology of that state is firmly ignored, but we do at least get a fantastically physical performance from Jones, a pasty ginger with a hint of the young Jared Harris about his protruding upper lip, who looks really unwell with great enthusiasm. Would that he had been encouraged to portray his character’s inner life with equal gusto.
Film’s Festival Page: Antiviral
New Auteurs Section
Country: Canada, USA
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Brandon Cronenberg
Producer: Niv Fichman
Executive Producers: Mark Slone, Victor Loewy
Cinematographer: Karim Hussain
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Production Designer: Arvinder Grewal
Music: E.C. Woodley
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Malcolm McDowell
Running Time (minutes): 108