Trying to discuss Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature without raising comparisons to his father’s work is akin to cutting grass with a pair of toenail clippers. It might be possible, but is ultimately an exercise in inefficiency. While the attending director may bristle at the notion that his father’s work influenced his own, Antiviral’s visceral body horror and clinical examination of modern media invite obvious comparison.
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for the Lucas Corporation, a company that extracts non-lethal viruses from celebrities and injects them into their customers, allowing paying individuals to feel closer to their objects of obsession. Before injecting clients, Syd runs a virus through a machine, rendering it incapable of transmission from one host to another, essentially copy protecting the Lucas Corps property. What his employers don’t know is that Syd smuggles black market samples using his own body as the carrier, and that he has his own machine squirreled away which allows him to get “high” on his own supply.
As one would expect, a film dealing communicable disease would be ripe with gore streaked visuals that can twist stomachs into knots. Anyone with an aversion to needles will find themselves covering their eyes with close up injections into gums and cheekbones. Cronenberg presents the violence with a clinician’s eye. Antiviral is awash in white antiseptic backgrounds, transforming a color typically associated with warmth and safety, tossing it back at the audience with a set design so bright that it becomes harsh and grating on the eyes after prolonged exposure. As one of the viruses begins to breakdown Sid’s body, the sight of spit up, viscous blood splashed on white provide stark, horrific visuals. Cronenberg also explores the transformative effect of disease with a series of nightmarish sequences and a sort of cloning farm that looks like a telepod experience gone wrong to the nth degree.
Cronenberg makes sly commentary on society’s obsession with celebrity and the need for instant access and analysis of the trivial. Hard news has been replaced by wall to wall TMZ type coverage that chronicles the lives of people famous for no discernible reason. Syd becomes a hot commodity when he’s infected by a virus believed to have killed off the country’s top celebrity; his agony allows fans to experience the star’s final moments that they ordinarily feel cheated out of. Coverage invades to the point where special news bulletins report on the insides of one starlet’s colon in up close detail. Even death doesn’t deter fans: underground clubs have sprung up featuring 3-D pods that allow one to interact with their favorite stars in a virtual setting.
One of the more bizarre and unsettling offshoots Cronenberg presents is the concept of harvesting celebrity skin cells that are cultivated into steaks, allowing paying customers to literally devour the flesh of the celebrities they adore. This does not occur in a seedy underground setting, but rather it takes place in the open market with customers lining up around the block just for a chance to take home a choice cut. In this ultra connected new world, one’s body does not even wholly belong to the self any more, as companies like Lucas and its competitors essentially put a trademark on the body and market it for their own purposes.
Caleb Landy Jones serves as the linchpin of Antiviral with a brooding, physical performance. With a face twisted into a perpetual scowl, Jones moves with a twisting, lumber that suggests the awful toll his home surgeries take on him. As the new disease takes hold, the camera’s perspective shifts with wide shots giving way to extreme close ups and odd angles. This manner of presentation suggest the prison Syd’s life has become.
The fact that his father’s legacy looms overhead is not up for debate. What Brandon Cronenberg does is mine territory familiar to his family while updating themes and exploring copyright protection and the pervasiveness of media. That the younger Cronenberg pushes forth his own vision in beautiful and disgusting ways makes him someone to pay attention to now and in the future.
By Mike Snoonian