DIRECTED BY: Brandon Cronenberg
PLOT: Syd is in the business of supplying fans who pay good money to be infected with a herpes simplex virus extracted from their favorite celebrities, but when he samples the blood of the world’s hottest model, he unwittingly injects himself with a fatal virus.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Doomed protagonists peering into mysteries they’d be better off not finding the answers to, painful hallucinatory bodily transformations, beautiful women with hidden gynecological deformities: Anitviral‘s got that genuine Cronenberg phenotype. Brandon, the son of David Cronenberg, ensures the family’s weird gene will live on.
COMMENTS: Antiviral is simultaneously science fiction, a satire of contemporary celebrity culture, a psychological thriller, and a body-horror fever dream. Trying to juggle that many balls takes the kind of hubris that only a first-time director can summon. Antiviral is generally up to the task, although it does start to drag as it runs its course; but its strange concepts and its chilly style should be enough to keep you hooked to the end. Antiviral imagines a world of the near future where celebrity obsession has become literally pathological: people pay top dollar to achieve “biological communion” with beautiful people by being infected with their personal diseases. This highly profitable market naturally invites corruption, including viral piracy by unscrupulous bug mules willing to serve as human incubators. To protect their intellectual property, pathogen peddlers have derived a bizarre copyrighting system that somehow uses facial imagining technology to give unique, distorted human features to each individual virus. The pop-microbe trade isn’t even the sickest way this society exploits susperstars’ cell structure; I won’t spoil that nauseating revelation. Caleb Landry Jones plays Syd, a top Lucas Corporation viral technician who’s wan-looking even when he’s healthy; he has few facial expressions, but seems like he was cast for his sickliness. On the other end of the spectrum is luminous Sarah Gadon (who, with roles in A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and now this is fast becoming the Cronenbergs’ go-to actress), the “more than perfect, more than human” supermodel whose cold sores are the Lucas Corporation’s top sellers. When Syd inadvertently contracts a fatal infection—one which, thankfully for the audience, includes inducing traumatic Cronenbergian hallucinations as a major side-effect—the race is on to find an antidote. The young viral entrepreneur will find out how deep the underground bio-celebrity trade goes, and how far the pathologists who work there are willing to go to keep their business model healthy. The future created in Antiviral is eerie and repellant. Like one of the movie’s copyrightable virus visages, which look like smartphone snapshots that have been run through a cheap face warping app, the culture here is distorted but recognizable. Cronenberg’s constant white-on-white color scheme can be heavy handed at times, but it generally reinforces the movie’s tone: artificial, otherworldly, and coldly antiseptic. While Antiviral runs out of steam before it reaches classic status, there are moments in the film that will make you both physically and morally ill. As a debut, it’s a promising start. Another generation of Cronenbergs is a savory prospect, and while not quite a masterpiece, Antiviral is a promising indicator of unsettling things to come from Brandon.
Antiviral‘s central premise—that people would willingly infect themselves with the flu, or herpes, just so they could feel closer to beautiful strangers—is too absurd to be believed, a satirical exaggeration. Then again, within our society exists the rare but real subculture of bugchasers. God help us.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: