Retro Review: ANTIVIRAL (2012){0}

Why are we so obsessed with celebrity? Obviously it makes sense to admire a talented person, and if that person finds fans all over the world, then they’ve earned that spotlight. But beyond that, why do we care if Brad Pitt gets a divorce or if a troublesome starlet goes to jail? Why are there TV shows who employ photographers to prowl airports and emergency rooms so that maybe we can get a new “candid” photo of a popular actor? That’s a question for the sociologists, the psychiatrists, and (in this case) the filmmakers. Antiviral, the stark and disturbing debut feature from Brandon Cronenberg, offers a science fiction concept, a film noir vibe, and a horror flick soul, and if it seems like the writer/director is starting off on the same thematic foot as his dad, that’s because he is.

Clearly, and at least partially, inspired by his father David’s early films (Shivers, Scanners, and Videodrome in particular), the younger Cronenberg makes a predictably bizarre debut with Antiviral, a multi-genre mind-bender that tackles themes of celebrity worship, the appeal of conformity, and our natural fear of bodily invasion. If Antiviral is a bit too long for its own good, and if its techno-babble-heavy plot starts to feel a bit cumbersome, those are small complaints in the face of a surprisingly original and quietly distressing little tale of good ol’ body horror. 


The plot, which gets more than a little convoluted before it gets slightly clearer, is about a gaunt and sickly-looking technician who works at a corporation that sells celebrity viruses to a more-than-demanding clientele. Why would a person want to be injected with a famous model’s strain of herpes or influenza? That’s one of Mr. Cronenberg’s key questions. (Why does a person want to emulate the hairstyle of a sitcom star?) Once we (sort of) grasp the science behind this strange premise, that’s when the fun stuff kicks in. Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) has been smuggling virii OUT of the facility to sell on the black market, and his customers include a butcher who injects the cells into meat — which means you’re now eating celebrity material.


And then we learn that Syd is also working on a special project for himself: he has an illegal replicator at home, which is a huge no-no with his boss, and then things gets even worse after our consistently sickly anti-hero decides to steal some cells from the world’s biggest star, and then she dies, and Syd is targeted for…


It all gets very complicated, which is where the “sci-fi neo-noir” structure comes in. Syd goes from a cellular embezzler to a pawn in a much larger game, and while it’s tough to build up much sympathy for the guy’s predicament, it certainly does go to some strange and viscerally upsetting places. Jones’ perpetually uncomfortable performance is the key to Antiviral‘s success, and after a while the man starts to feel like a human lab rat, but the actor offers a truly brave and vulnerable performance amidst all of Antiviral‘s ice-cold men, machines, and microbes. 


Antiviral is a tough, almost willfully difficult movie, but it’s fascinating more often than it is dramatically off-putting, and yes, it does offer some of the rough-hewn, brightly-lit, matter-of-fact bio-horror that the genre fans have come to expect from the name Cronenberg. It just happens to be a younger Cronenberg this time around, but if Antiviral is a freaky harbinger of what Brandon Cronenberg plans to create, then it’s safe to say that he’ll quickly improve on the chilling but very chilly Antiviral. The film kept me slightly confused, frequently unbalanced, and entirely at a distance for 105 minutes, but it’s also a ballsy and audacious sci-fi / horror / satire concoction that I plan to revisit in a year or two.