This review is part of our 2012 Fantastic Fest coverage. Feel free to inject yourself with the rest of it right here.
If Antiviral is any indication, we now live in a time in which we have two working Cronenbergs, both making Cronenberg films. The mind boggles. This one is from Brandon, it being his first feature, and it follows in his father’s fleshy footsteps while standing alone as a remarkable piece of edgy science fiction. Typically, the offspring of famous creatives will work to establish a voice of their own, wanting to be considered as an artist first and foremost, where people will consider their art without the baggage associated with their famous surname (if they don’t change that name entirely). Brandon Cronenberg seems to be an anomaly, perfectly content to continue the family business, and we’re all the better for it as moviegoers.
Brandon Cronenberg may be more of an aesthetician than David (certainly moreso than when his father made his first feature film). There’s a lot of visual control on display, with most of the film set in a world of whitest whites and blackest blacks (cut through with occasional splashes of blood red), and shot compositions that bear the earmarks of meticulous planning. Other than that obvious visual difference, Antiviral returns to the central themes of Brandon’s father’s most famous works, from Videodrome to The Fly, stories about losing control of the one thing that we should know to be true - our own flesh.
Imagine a future in which celebrity tabloid culture has caught up with the latest developments in genetics. You can buy a slab of meat grown in a lab from the cells of a pop-music star, and fry it up at home, becoming one with the superstar of your dreams. You can solicit the help of companies like the Lucas Clinic, which will let you buy and inject the illnesses of celebrities so that you can have the same cold sores as the hottest young starlet.
Syd Marsh (Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman for Lucas, but he’s also stealing and dealing illnesses on the side. In fact, he’s carrying the viruses out of the clinic in his own body and extracting them later on a stolen piece of work equipment. He runs afoul of a modified virus from beloved public figure Hannah Geist, one that has her on her deathbed, and Syd ends up becoming more of a commodity than a human being, sought after by the black market, Geist’s handlers searching for a cure, and Lucas Clinic’s unscrupulous competition. As the situation worsens, so does Syd’s physical condition.
There’s a vein of blacker-than-black humor in Antiviral, including a running background gag about the public’s fascination with one celebrity’s anus problems, and several scenes that combine ripped-from-the-headlines science with the vapidity of TMZ fanatics. One early client encounter has Syd placing a herpes shot from Geist directly on the spot where the happy client would have been kissed to have received the herpes naturally. It’s never mentioned why Hannah Geist (or any of the made-up celebs that inhabit Antiviral’s world) is famous, just that she’s beautiful and beloved by the world. Cronenberg predicts a future that’s the natural extension of the one we live in, where someone can become a household name and spawn an entertainment empire by sheer force of will, with no apparent talents.
Cronenberg has found good use of mumbly actor Caleb Landry Jones (The Last Exorcism, X-Men: First Class), who single-handedly carries the film on his stooped shoulders. The performance is an entirely physical one, with Jones’ slim, bird-like features and strange posture creating a central character who is always fascinating to watch. Syd is a very difficult protagonist -- he’s not an interesting person and he’s certainly not sympathetic -- but the performance itself is strange enough to cast its own spell. You can’t stop watching Jones, and that’s a pretty good sign that this is an actor that’s going places, recalling the bizarre commitment of a young Nic Cage or Crispin Glover. He’s supported in key scenes by more down-to-earth actors, like James Cade as the butcher at a literal celebrity meat market who also serves as Syd’s black market fence, and Malcolm McDowell in his best genre turn in years as Geist’s celebrity-obsessed doctor.
The ideas in Antiviral are already queasy, but they’re made even more horrific with their immediate plausibility. This isn’t just presenting the concept that one day science would allow us to do that which we see in the film; it’s the notion that this kind of ground-breaking genetics work would be perverted to bridge the gap between the wannabes and the ones that they idolize, all in the pursuit of money. Sad to say, but if the world as depicted in the movie could exist right this very second, it would. The psychological motivation to inject yourself with a movie star’s flu or to have a lab-grown swatch of their skin grafted onto your body is almost unfathomable, yet we know this level of celebrity worship exists. It’s just waiting for the future to catch up, and that’s a scary thought.
This is an unsettling, heady little thriller that completely fulfills whatever expectations you have for a Cronenberg sci-fi/horror movie. With just one film, it’s too early to tell how different Brandon’s voice is from his father’s, but it’s a strong, clear voice; one with vision and muscle. Antiviral is the best sick body horror freak-out in a long while. Its bleeding edge social satire feels entirely too close for comfort, but we’ll take uncomfortable; uncomfortable is a good thing.