Fantastic Fest 2012: ‘Antiviral’
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
One doesn’t wear the Cronenberg name lightly. David Cronenberg has had one of the most odd and respected careers in the business, and any conversation about body horror begins and ends with his name. Naturally, Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature film–a body horror film, at that–comes loaded with expectation. And if Antiviral doesn’t live up to those expectations, it succeeds as an interesting experiment with several fantastic sequences.
In the not-too-distant and exceedingly monochrome future, regular folks are able to purchase infections that have coursed through the body of famous folks. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), works at such a facility–Lucas Industries–as a salesman and encryption expert. From the beginning Syd is sickly and morose, and the reason quickly becomes clear: he has been harvesting viruses in his body, de-encrypting them at home, and selling them on the black market. Problems begin when he infects himself a virus carried by Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), a deathly ill celebrity.
The plot and concept are very clever, and Cronenberg has fun reveling in his world of bizarro commerce. Unfortunately, his attentions are tuned entirely to that specific industry, while the rest of his dystopia is left sterile and vague. And without tangible context, the absurdity of the central conceit stretches credibility. The film’s set dressings are largely very simple, which, while allowing for some gorgeous shots, mostly makes the whole affair feel far too clinical. There are plenty of inspired details–like the encryption process which results in a beautiful, ghostly half face, unique to each virus, or a terrifying hallucination Syd undergoes while infected–but not enough to fill a feature.
Caleb Landry Jones gives his absolute all to this role, and it shows. He’s a captivating presence, an organism in a void, and he may just make you physically ill. While there are sequences of Syd walking around all wonky and sick that test the viewer’s patience, his constant presence helps carry the film when the concept cannot.
In the end, Antiviral’s largest problem may be that it’s too straightforward. Cronenberg presents a big, pertinent metaphor, explains the mechanics, and follows it to its absurd finality without a moment for filthy humanity. It’s all speculative anthropology and not enough psychology. Antiviral deserves a watch, but mostly for the promise of what Brandon Cronenberg may be capable of.