Just over 40 years after the release of David Cronenberg’s Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), his son, Brandon Cronenberg, has filmed and released his debut feature Antiviral. Before this film was even finished, there was a certain weight of expectation and trepidation amongst fans concerned that Jnr’s film would struggle to live up to his father’s illustrious reputation. Would he wear his influences so brazenly as to be accused of cashing in on his father’s obsessions and reputation? Or would he assimilate everything he has seen his father do and go his own way…and make something unique, something uniquely Cronenberg? Well, he did…and he didn’t, and he hasn’t. Or has he? Antiviral is both completely Cronenberg and completely different, in look, in tone…if not in subject matter and the fascinations of its director.
Syd (played by the incredibly sickly-looking and intense Caleb Landry Jones) is an engineer with a corporation that harvests viruses and illnesses from celebrities and sells them on to consumers as company exclusives. In this way, obsessed celebrity fans are able to experience chemical and biological bonds with those they worship. As soon as a celebrity develops herpes, for instance, it is sold by unscrupulous ne’er-do-wells and goes on sale to the public immediately. What is never explained is why, in the world of Antivirus, there doesn’t seem to be any healthy celebrities; they are all seething pits of virus and infection. This itself would be an interesting story, but it doesn’t seem to fit in with the point Cronenberg is trying to make. There is a brief explanation, or an attempt at one, when Malcolm McDowell’s character talks about belief in god being juvenile, yet in keeping with what he does (he has grown patches of celebrity skin up his inner arm), as one justification for what he does; the other would be because one is merely a “fan”. Yeah.
Syd is also a black-market salesman, peddling viruses to people portrayed as desperate and obsessed, but also to those who would exploit them. We know he takes viruses home to duplicate/crack on his stolen console, and then to pass on the black market, where one can buy everything from harvested bits of sinew to celebrity steaks. One day, Syd gets a call for an exclusive virus from celebrity star Hanna Geist (her name is surely rather too obvious a message) replacing his co-worker Derek, who is involved in all manner of dodgy viral dealings. After he has extracted the sample, he dashes straight off and injects himself with it, sending his body into further ruination due to years of carrying viruses. A few days later, Hanna Geist dies and Syd realises he is in a race against time to uncover the mystery of her death and save himself, as dark forces gather around him, trying to get hold of both his equipment and the virus he carries.
From this point on the film becomes a relatively formulaic whodunnit; Syd is abducted and then…abducted again, and after a while it became all rather confusing and repetitive, though never boring. Although the ending is suitably bizarre and does a good job of bringing this whole odd affair to a close, all the way through I found myself struggling to take the film seriously. It looks amazing (Cronenberg Jnr. has had the sense to, for his first feature, surround himself with an amazing crew), shifting between gritty, rainy exterior shots, weird back-room black markets (looking very much like the strange markets and bazaars in daddy’s brilliant films eXistenZ and Naked Lunch) and the incredibly clean, angular, sterile, minimalist sets of the medical institutions (this is especially effective in the blood-soaked final third). The acting is also spot on, particularly from Landry Jones, an actor I’d not heard of before this film, whose performance is creepy and disturbing. And incredibly brave, he is willing to make himself look at death’s door (and sometimes beyond it) and does things to his body that are both eerily realistic yet still horrible, and fit the atmosphere of the film perfectly. The rest of the cast are good too, particularly Sarah Gadon as the superstar waif Hannah Geist, and Malcolm McDowell is, well, Malcolm McDowell.
Which all sounds good and well, it’s just that, after the first hour or so I became increasingly disillusioned with the film, purely and simply because I found the whole premise to be fundamentally nonsensical. Sure, the society of celebrity spectacle is rife with great ideas and possibilities of horrors untold, both physical and mental, I just think Cronenberg missed something when he introduced the virus into the story, or the other way around. Viruses are interesting, celebrities are interesting. Why anybody would want a celebrity virus doesn’t make sense. There may well be one or two utter, utter lunatics no doubt, but in this film it is portrayed as big business. And that to me is just nonsense. And it’s a pity that his scathing satire misses the mark, because the film he has built around this absurd notion is excellent.
Antiviral is an assured, technically ept, if a little misguided début. Now that he has the “Cronenberg” film out of his system, I imagine his next will be even better.
Director/Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell, Douglas Smith, Nicholas Campbell
Running Time: 108min