Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Written by Brandon Cronenberg
There is, one imagines, a breaking point with exactly how infatuated any of us will be with the modern celebrity. We fawn over them in tabloid magazines, keep tabs on their romantic lives, and get angry when they make choices we disagree with, but how far are we willing to go? Would any of us actually want to be infected with a virus or disease simply because a celebrity got it first? The new Canadian body horror film Antiviral presents a slightly alternate universe where that very practice is immensely popular, highly questionable though it may seem.
In this science-fiction vision, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg (yes, David’s son) offers up the notion that people are so desperate to be close to their favorite stars, to be like them, that they’ll get sick to share on an internal level what celebrities go through from day to day. Caleb Landry Jones plays a moody, mumbly technician named Syd working for The Lucas Group, which harvests diseases from celebrities so that John and Jane Q. Public can get them injected in their own bodies, for a steep price. Syd also injects diseases into himself for money, selling them on the black market. when one of the biggest worldwide celebs (Sarah Gadon) gets ill with an unknown virus, Syd spies a huge financial gain and injects the mysterious disease. It’s so unknown, however, that Syd begins to manifest strange and disturbing symptoms.
Antiviral is, if nothing else, supremely nasty to watch if you’re not a fan of needles. They are the gateway from one person to the next in this world, so all of those germs, bacteria, and viruses can intermingle, damn the consequences. Cronenberg takes a special pleasure in providing tons of close-ups of needles entering skin, so anyone who freaks out when they get a vaccine or has to have blood taken may be in for quite an uncomfortable ride. Jones, young, pale, and callow, puts himself through the ringer; Syd is essentially a human pincushion as long as he’s paid handsomely enough. In terms of ickiness, Antiviral is perhaps not as gross as, say, David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (though one of the final images here comes awfully close), but the entire film is infused with an unerring sense of dread.
Because Antiviral has a bleakness permeating through each shot and scene, the film feels extremely turgid and slow, like a nightmare you can’t wake from no matter how hard you try. Despite barely being 110 minutes, Antiviral seeps under the skin and stays there, rarely picking up steam in spite of a few notably visceral, intense sequences. The success of the tone aside, it would be nice if Cronenberg allowed his story to pick up the pace so it didn’t so frequently feel, ironically, a bit lifeless. The performers all play at a mild level of engagement, the action and dialogue rarely raising above a whisper. What this movie needs, even a handful of times, is something closer to a shout.
From a technical standpoint, Antiviral is accomplished if a bit excessive. The black-market sequences are literally darkened, as the characters work in the grimiest possible atmosphere if only to further emphasize exactly how grim the world is outside of preferred, high-class venues. On the flip side, the scenes at the Lucas Group and other big-business medical facilities are drenched in white, often to the point where it looks like the actors and props are being filmed against a green screen that’s transformed into infinite, blinding nothingness. The dichotomy isn’t terribly unique, but the presentation is still striking.
How far would any of us go to emulate our most beloved celebrities, to be like them in any way possible? The set-up in Antiviral stretches the imagination more than is, at least, realistic now—would we be so fascinated with a Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian that we’d want to share their medical histories, specific down to each body part? Brandon Cronenberg’s concept is somewhat faulty, and Antiviral proves that he may be inspired somewhat by the work of his father, yet he’s proficient enough behind the camera. One hopes it’s not too naïve even now to doubt that people would want to be diseased simply so they could have one more thing in common with a celebrity; anyone who might be curious would do well to watch this icky, sometimes disturbing horror film and wonder, after it’s over, what the hell they were thinking.
— Josh Spiegel