Canada | 2012 | Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Logline: A scheming employee at a clinic that offers clients biological communion with celebrities finds himself in mortal danger after he deliberately infects himself with a virulent virus.
“A celebrity is a cultural construct that's unrelated to the human being, and continues to exist independent of the life and death of the human being … If you look at the deification of the saints and people elevated almost to the status of gods, repeated iconography, physical fetishism: you know, that desire for the finger bone of a particular saint, the relics. I don't think the problem is new and that we should all get hysterical about it, but I do think the mania that drives that industry is extremely unhealthy because it represents a loss of perspective.” --- Brandon Cronenberg
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) sells injections of live viruses harvested from infected celebrities to overly obsessive fans. It is a present/future where the cult of celebrity has transmogrified into a dangerous beast; para-socialising taken to extreme measures. For a price the zealous fanatic can feel their crush’s discomfort, taste their pain, live their disease. It’s a reality both unreal, yet perversely possible.
Syd also supplies samples of the viruses to the black market, smuggling them in his body, trying to stay one step ahead of other such biological pirates. It’s a cutthroat business, and you can trust no one. Not even the celebrity selling his or her own disease, and Syd discovers that super-celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) might not be quite as perfect as her visage appears.
This is Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature, expanded from a short film concept he cultivated in film school. It’s safe to say he has channeled much of his famous father’s early work into Antiviral, whether he admits it or not. The sterile atmosphere and minimal production design of David Cronenberg’s experimental features Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) are very evident, while the infectious paranoia, quietly hysterical tone of Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) also exudes.
This is an assured and accomplished debut with a tour-de-force performance from Caleb Landry Jones who possesses a unique charisma. Support acting is adequate, but the character of Syd March dominates the narrative. The production design, especially that of the Ready Face consoles, is superb, as is the powerful and brooding electronic score from E. C. Woodley. Some nice special effects makeup too, and special note must go to the real(istic) injections.
Antiviral is a very dark satire; the humour is tenebrous, in contrast to the cinematography’s white lighting and the stark, often white, production design. The lust for celebrity fashioned into a sexual metaphor; the hyperdermic needle penetrating the skin. Cronenberg merges body horror and science-faction, and, just like his father, Brandon is a strong and deliberate visualist, with a keen eye for composition and careful camera movement, in this case often shooting characters in profile, a symbolic reference to the “profiles” celebrities keep. Brandon even creates a fictional corporation – The Lucas Clinic – just as his father has done many times.
It seems like father, like son. A tear off the old flesh, you might say. And I’m very okay with that.