It’s only his first film, but already Brandon Cronenberg has managed to out-do his father, famed Videodrome and Crash auteur David Cronenberg. All of the trademarks that characterize the elder Cronenberg’s work—the clinical, anti-septic atmosphere, the emphasis on weird bodily mutations, the odd, robotic quality of the performances—are all present in his son’s debut feature, only to a much greater degree. On a purely superficial level, Antiviral is easily the most Cronenbergian movie to date.
Unfortunately, Brandon Cronenberg hasn’t inherited his father’s talent for creating interesting characters, telling interesting stories, or addressing issues in a way that isn’t overbearing and over-the-top. It may have the look and feel of a visionary sci-fi masterpiece, but Antiviral becomes something of an endurance test after about 40 minutes in.
Set in a chilly, anonymous city that could very well be the same chilly, anonymous city of Crash and Videodrome, Antiviral follows Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee at a clinic that acquires celebrity diseases and injects them into paying costumers. But celebrity diseases aren’t the only hot item in this world—there are also butcher shops that sell meat that’s been grown from celebrity cells and doctors who will graft patches of celebrity skin onto a patient’s arms.
In a weird variation of the sort of plot that fuelled The Informant! and Owning Mahony, March smuggles diseases out of the clinic and sells them on the black market, gradually getting deeper and deeper over his head. One day, he is sent to collect a disease from super-celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) and secretly injects himself with it on the way out of the hotel. The only problem: Geist succumbs to the disease the next day. Soon March finds himself at the center of the same sort of elaborate conspiracy that James Woods found himself in the middle of in Videodrome.
But whereas Videodrome was tightly plotted, featured a charismatic leading performance courtesy of James Woods, and had interesting things to say about violence, technology, and the media, Antiviral meanders for nearly two hours, features a dull, monochromatic protagonist (although Caleb Landry Jones does give the character an impressive physicality), and delivers a critique of celebrity culture that’s so harsh and unremitting that you’ll end up feeling sorry for Snooki, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and their countless fans, who—while vacant and annoying—surely don’t deserve this level of scorn.
Still, there’s a lot to like about Antiviral. Every frame is vividly composed, the score is eerie and unsettling, and some of the more gruesome props—the flesh popsicles, the celebrity coffin/petri dish—could be sculptures in the Museum of Modern Art. If only they belonged to a better movie.
All in all, a strong debut for Cronenberg the director, a weak outing for Cronenberg the screenwriter.