It takes guts to take a myth head-on. If you’re David Cronenberg’s son, and you want to direct films, there are a number of different ways to come out of the gate. Hats off to him for making a hallucinatory sci-fi/”body horror” movie. It’s like Hitchcock’s deciding to make a paranoid suspense picture.
And though the junior Cronenberg’s directorial debut ‘Antiviral’ certainly springs from the same plasma pool as ‘Videodrome,’ ‘The Brood’ and ‘Crimes of the Future,’ it has its share of problems. Despite a few moments of advanced tech it feels like an unearthed cult film from 1983 and feels like it’s ready made for whacked-out, midnight fans.
The premise is nuts. In an alternate reality (or is it?) celebrity worship has virtually taken over society. Famous people dominate all news feeds and the level of scrutiny has become invasive to a cellular level. The public’s need to commune on a personal level with these Gods Who Walk Among Us has created an industry wherein particular strains of illnesses are being sold. In other words, Kim Kardashian had the flu last January, you can actually BUY that same flu so you can suffer just exactly like she suffered.
Our hero, the superlatively pale Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee from ‘X-Men: First Class’) works at the high-end Lucas Clinic. They have the exclusive contract with Hannah Geist (played by Sarah Gadon, the gorgeous blonde who recently starred in, ahem, David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis’ and ‘A Dangerous Method.’) Jones closes the final deal with the quivering fan, makes the injection and, when no one is looking, takes the last few drops of serum and smuggles the sickness out by infecting himself, too.
Jones has connections to the underworld and, it goes without saying, things quickly start to go south. Soon he’s on the trail of a conspiracy, with himself a ticking timebomb of deteriorating health. It’s hard to play crime lords and titans of industry off of one another while you are constantly coughing up sputum, but this is the task at hand.
Unfortunately, the specifics of the plot are far less developed than the tone and details in the world of the film. (Same goes for movies like ‘Shivers’ and ‘Rabid,’ but, really, I’m gonna stop comparing soon, I swear.) ‘Antiviral’ is set in a white-on-white world with TVs blasting solarized images of paparazzi crotch shots. “Celebrities aren’t people, they are group hallucinations,” says the founder of the clinic, and by the time you see the pirated cell gardens and gray blocks of flesh steaks, there’s a good chance you’ll get on this movie’s wavelength and agree this isn’t too far-fetched.
There are a few moments of deadpan humor (from the bickering co-workers, mostly) but the bulk of the film is spent with an increasingly gross, but always well-dressed, lead character who wavers between frowning at society and reveling in his (very) personal proximity to fame. “There is a power from the thrall of the public eye” says Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Abendroth. He may be Hannah Geist’s personal physician, but he also has a bootlegged patch of her skin near his wrist, and he purrs as he rubs it.
Yeah, so ‘Antiviral’ is weird. And I’m not 100% what the hell happened at the end. But I can’t really explain the end of ‘Videodrome’ either. Brandon Cronenberg isn’t quite at that level yet (alas, the ear for dissonant dialogue isn’t in evidence here) but all signs point to the family business expanding well into the newer generation.‘Antiviral’ premiered at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.