By Caryn James | James on Screens April 15, 2013 at 9:01AM
Paris Hilton is all but forgotten, the word "Kardashian" long ago became a late-night comedy punchline, and it's hard to remember a high-profile political campaign that did not turn on a candidate's movie-worthy charisma. So why would anyone think that noticing our obsession with celebrity culture counts as something profound? Or even something to say? For all its surface flash - and some of it really dazzles - that sense of rediscovering the celebrity wheel is what makes Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral a sleek but vapid thriller. (It's in theaters and on VOD now.)
Cronenberg, who wrote and directed, has an imagination that echoes his father, David's, at its most twisted: effective, stomach-churning sci-fi meets warped personalities. Here the premise is self-important and blunt. The hero, Syd , works at a clinic where regular people come to be injected with cells from the celebrities they worship. One gets his lip shot up with a herpes virus, just at the place where his favorite star might have kissed him. Most people go for cells from Hannah Geist, a blonde mannequin-like woman who resembles the Madonna of a decade ago.
It might have been intriguing to look at how Hannah's Madonna-like face and style were created and why. But that doesn't interest Cronenberg, and to be fair he never does treat celebrity as more than his MacGuffin, setting off a plot about black-market cells and a lethal disease. That absence of thought is exactly the problem, though: it leaves the film with caricatures instead of characters.
Caleb Landry Jones can't overcome the script's weakness, but he helps a lot by making Syd a mesmerizing, if laconic, presence. When we see him in the film's first shot, he is already sick, a deathly figure with a thermometer in his mouth, vampire-pale, wraith-thin in a funereal black suit.
Syd's life is also in danger for another reason: he has been selling pilfered cells, primarily to a butcher who peddles human-flesh steaks cultivated from celebrity DNA. (And you thought David Cronenberg's The Fly messed with genetics.)
This thin narrative is an excuse for Cronenberg's style, which has flair, as well as a taste for thick, wine-colored blood. Syd staggers through chilling white-walled labs and collapses in his seedy apartment. He finds himself in Hannah's luxurious hotel suite, where she lies like Sleeping Beauty. Eventually he is treated by her own doctor, played by Malcolm MacDowell with an easy touch of malice.
We almost care whether Syd beats his illness and the black-market thugs, but not quite. The final image, which offers a big reveal about his character, adds the kind of substantive detail the film could have used much more of all along.
Resting on the theme that our viral-video world is stupidly obsessed with fame, Antiviral might sound as if it resonates with the culture. Actually, it is a film without a point.