First-time Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg proves himself to be every bit his father’s son in this darkly satirical sci-fi thriller, where celebrity has reached such extremes that fans will pay top dollar to contract their idols’ ailments and diseases. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is a top executive at the Lucas Clinic, but is secretly contracting and copying viruses to sell on the black market. But when he injects himself his the new “Hannah Geist flu”, only for the starlet to drop dead, Syd must find out what he has caught and how he can cure himself before he too suffers the same fate.
Back in the 1980s, David Cronenberg made the “body horror” sub-genre his own, exploring seemingly inconceivable avenues of science fiction in how humanity is dependent upon, yet defines itself with vulnerable tissue and bone. Films like Rabid, Videodrome, The Fly and many others staked their claims as horror classics, building on classic gothic horror like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde and The Invisible Man, at a time when our bodies had begun turning against us post-sexual revolution.
30 years later and while Cronenberg Sr. takes his cinematic explorations in different directions, the mantle has been passed to son Brandon, who rises to the challenge in smart, enthusiastic fashion. Cronenberg paints a sterile, bleached white picture of modern society, where people have nothing of interest around them, save only for the celebrities they worship like gods. Their ravenous appetite for gossip, tidbits and to somehow get close to their idols has seen viral services like those at The Lucas Clinic appear to serve their need. Elsewhere, however, and even more disturbing, cell farmers are reproducing actual human tissue, which can then be bought, cooked and eaten by the masses.
The film’s most interesting question hangs over the head of its protagonist, Syd, wonderfully portrayed by the pale, gaunt, perpetually infectious Caleb Landry Jones. On the one hand, he is the peddler, the pimp, perpetuating this sick trade, yet he has also broken the golden rule of any such enterprise – never get high on your own supply. While certainly making a healthy living off these desperate souls, is Syd really any better than his customers? Or is he just another fanboy yearning to get closer to his heroes?
Also, of interest is that the celebrities in Antiviral are always kept at arm’s length from the viewer, we know very little about them, yet see their images adorning walls and television screens in almost every scene. We are told almost nothing besides the fact that they are beautiful and they are loved. Are they actors? Singers? Musicians or Athletes? We never know. They are celebrities. They are better than us, and they deserve to be treated as such.
Antiviral is an incredibly assured debut, and the world will be watching when Cronenberg Jr. releases his next work into the world. I doubt there would be any complaints if Brandon continues to explore the world of body horror, especially now that his father’s interest on that particular topic has cooled somewhat, but there must be a temptation to cut loose the apron strings and forge a new path for himself. Either way, we wait with baited breath for his sophomore offering, but for now at least, Cronenberg can keep his germs to himself.