If there was any question whether Brandon Cronenberg is the true offspring of David Cronenberg, the matter should be settled by Antiviral, a slow-burning body horror that suggests the younger C-Berg is as twisted as his dad. I don't even want to know what that house was like growing up.
Antiviral takes place in a sterile-looking minimalist alternate version of present-day Toronto, in a society where celebrity culture has become so prevalent that people are buying famous people's diseases. A handsome actor or beautiful supermodel contracts herpes, say, and sells a sample to a licensed clinic, where it is passed via injection to admirers who want to feel a connection to their idols. Coming down with herpes is no big deal. (I've done it.) Getting the exact same herpes as the woman on the cover of Vogue, that's something special.
We're introduced to this perversity through Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a gaunt, sweaty young man who works as a technician at The Lucas Clinic, the premier purveyor of celebrity viruses. A gorgeous model and actress named Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) is Lucas' most in-demand provider of STDs; the clinic has an exclusive deal with her, and the public eagerly awaits news of her latest infections, which are breathlessly reported by the 24-hour TV news cycle. Security is tight -- it would ruin the business if the diseases became publicly available, for free -- but Syd March has found a way to bring his work home with him and dabble in the black market.
This society's celebrity fixation runs to even more stomach-churning extremes than selling their viruses, but we'll leave it at that for now. In the course of establishing his world, Cronenberg makes darkly satirical observations about our real-life gossip culture, all of them astute if not exactly revelatory, and he makes a good case for this absurdity being the logical conclusion to the course we're already on. (He's had time to think about it: "Antiviral" is an expansion of a short film he made in 2008.) No doubt making his father proud, Cronenberg treats us to several close-ups of needle injections, rashes, and sores, and the stark white floors and walls of almost every room in the film make for a nice contrast when they become (as they must) spattered with blood.
But once he's created his world -- and done so with effective, calculated precision -- Cronenberg runs into a common problem: what to do with it. The plot involves conspiracies and skulduggery, corporate espionage and nefarious dealings. It is the sort of plot that requires Malcolm McDowell to appear and tell Syd, "I'm afraid you've become involved with something sinister." In other words, it's bland, average sci-fi stuff. Further potential is sapped by Syd's undefined motives and objectives. We barely know who he, and we know even less about what he wants.
And so it's fair to say that Antiviral is intriguing; it's just not thrilling. One's interest is piqued immediately, and I felt compelled to keep watching just to see all the nooks and crannies of Cronenberg's unsettling but weirdly plausible world. But I never felt engaged in the actual story, which unfortunately makes the 110-minute film feel plodding and ponderous. It's like a mesmerizing tour of a stunning new state-of-the-art theater, followed by the discovery that the play being staged is an unremarkable one that you've seen before. Brandon Cronenberg definitely has promise as a visually minded filmmaker and a teller of gross stories, however, and this is a respectable opening bid. (3 out of 5 stars)