Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg’s directorial debut, proves the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like his father David Cronenberg’s early features, Antiviral is more of a collection of inspired, perverse ideas than a cogent piece de provocation. To be fair, Antiviral’s vision of the soon-to-be corrupt future is derivative, which would be a moot point if it didn’t evoke David Cronenberg films like Crash and Videodrome. But at the same time, Antiviral is more than sufficiently novel to be entertaining, even if Brandon Cronenberg’s script and direction are not as sufficiently assured.
Brandon Cronenberg imagines a world where people’s celebumania has mutated into an obsession with contracting famous people’s exotic diseases, which will literally consume their flesh. His debut has promise, though it lacks the conviction that we’ve come to associate with his father’s movies, over time.
Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman at a clinic dedicated to infecting plebs who want to contract various diseases, including herpes, from their favorite celebrities. Syd is also a viral mule, inoculating himself and smuggling bugs out of the clinic to sell on the black market. Unfortunately for Syd, the latest bug he’s contracted, this time directly from “perfect” celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), is of unknown origin and probably lethal.
While Syd looks for a cure, both for himself and for Hannah, he navigates between two predictably similar different worlds. The clean world of radical new cosmetic technology and antiseptic clinics is necessarily similar to the black market world of stem cell muscle steaks grown from human tissue samples. The representatives of both sides are equally morally bankrupt and practically cutthroat, from Arvid (Joe Pingue), the butcher who buys viruses and sells human meat, to Syd’s boss, Edward Porris (Douglas Smith), the CEO who publicly denies the ethical dubiousness of his practice to a reporter.
Syd’s character arc is thus defined by his struggle to neither identify with nor distance himself from either side. The result of this class-based tug-of-war is not hard to guess. (Spoilers ahead, though not really!) Since he’s caught between two stations and has an unidentified sickness gnawing at his guts, Syd inevitably grows to accept that he wants to buy what Arvid and Edward are both selling. In one scene, Syd looks on with awe at an interactive TV console in a seedy club that allows customers to dominate a helpless celebrity, virtually. After the celebrity mewls and begs him, still an anonymous, un-committed voyeur, to tell her how she should hurt herself, Syd starts to become convinced.
In the end, Syd doesn’t wind up anywhere unexpected. He’s not a obsessed cipher like Videodrome’s Max Renn, or a free-wheeling pervert like Crash’s James Ballard, but rather an embroiled collaborator. His fate is too neat to be really transgressive, an effect which is, ironically enough, one of the most salient ways Brandon Cronenberg’s first work differs from most of his father’s work. On some level, David always knew how to push buttons, even if he did get better at it as he went along. Brandon’s a better scenarist and idea man than he is as a button-pusher though. One can only hope his follow-up is a little more distinct, or, barring that, a lot more confident.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.