Contracting an illness is not something most of us long for. It’s often an unpleasant, uncomfortable, and incapacitating affair to be ill. For the highly-skilled technicians of the Lucas Clinic, disease is their discipline. Turning common cold into commodity, the Lucas Clinic offers fans the unique opportunity to become physically connected to their favorite celebrity by having the diseases of those celebrities injected into their own bodies.
As if that wasn’t creepy enough, actual biological material from these stars has been reproduced into slabs of meat that are then devoured by the masses. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is one of the clinic’s most accomplished employees, but he’s bitten off a bit more than he can chew…and no, we’re not talking about a broiled pop singer steak. He’s injected himself with a virus from a particularly popular starlet, a virus from which she ends up dying. The clock ticks away as Syd struggles to make sense of her demise before death becomes a common bond between the two of them.
Dispensing with the elephant in the room, yes, Brandon Cronenberg is the son of celebrated director David Cronenberg. What could easily be perceived as nepotism here is in fact a tremendous hurdle for junior Cronenberg’s debut. We assign certain expectations and preconceived judgements long before a single frame enters our consciousness. On the other hand, if David Cronenberg insists upon his self-imposed horror embargo, his own son seems the prime candidate to pick up the ball where his father left it and run with it.
For as much as Brandon espouses that Antiviral is not inspired by his father’s work, it shares many of the same strands of genetic material. The body horror elements bred of this conceit bear the expected paternal earmarks, but Brandon does plenty to etch his own name, last and first, into the flesh of this subgenre.
Antiviral is a fascinating examination of the intangible sense of self by way of spotlighting our collective obsession with celebrity. It’s central conceit is troubling, but only in so much as it does not feel entirely removed from our current society. Is the injection of celebrity disease really such a far cry from those who buy locks of John Lennon’s hair or Elvis’s discarded tissues? What these people are obsessed with is the ideal of celebrity, the sense of an entity greater than themselves. It is its own form of religion, and like any religion, it inspires zealots.
Cronenberg artfully exterminates the — forgive the pun — meat of this metaphor with calculated nuance. The unsettling commentary may not overwhelm the narrative, but like an evasive, long-term illness, it lingers under the skin of the plot just waiting for moments of violent recurrence.
Jones’s performance as Syd is understated and exceptional. It speaks to the quiet, unassuming sci-fi reality of Cronenberg’s alternate present. The great paradox of the movie is that while the environments are sterile and pristine, the truth obscured by those facades is twisted, gory, and viscerally upsetting. Jones broodingly, but contemplatively slinks through the gruesome set pieces as if each step causes him immeasurable internal pain.
He is the body horror take on the Orwellian hero, working within a dystopian system before finally becoming wise to the inhumanity of its machinations. It’s what he chooses to do with that awareness that defines the movie. What’s interesting in this regard is how the divisions in labor classes are obfuscated by the premise. Syd is essentially a blue-collar guy, but even the humble butcher must now have knowledge of bioengineering in order to ply his trade.
The younger Cronenberg’s visuals are positively striking, again speaking to the benefits of heredity. The dream sequence in which Syd’s mouth is replaced with a bleeding, rectangular steel grate as suspension devices spring from his appendages is suitably tough to look at. And yet, even the smaller, less spectacular slicing of a slab of celeb steak gives rise to the goosebumps. The final shot, the inevitable end game of this evolving (or rather devolving) thematic obsession, will stick in your brain like a splinter. Much of the credit in this regard must go to the practical effects work in Antiviral, which is fiendishly proficient.
As to problems with the film, it commits the sin from time to time of being too slight. It shoots for the moon metaphorically and hits its mark more often than it misses. However, there are points wherein the point feels to have been made, and we are stuck in a storytelling box as we begin to itch for something new to intercede into the narrative. The mystery does not have the most satisfying payoff, but that is quickly rescued by a haunting epilogue.
Brandon has crawled out from his father’s shadow, but not completely free of familial artistic contamination. It’s sort of a Brundlefly moment. It’s as if David Cronenberg attempted to teleport himself but did not notice the issue of The Daily Mirror in the pod with him. What arrives on the other side is Brandon Cronenberg’s impressive first outing.
The Upside: Thoughtful, effectively shocking, well-shot and well-preformed, Antiviral is a formidable introduction to the new Cronenberg.
The Downside: Plot doldrums grind the film to a near halt at points.
On the Side: The disturbing image of Syd’s mutated mouth were inspired by Brandon’s own ink drawing from years past.