With his debut feature Antiviral, writer and director Brandon Cronenberg might be accused of following in his famous father David’s footsteps, and while he finds himself unquestionably influenced by his old man in terms of plot structure, pacing, and leaning towards the use of body horror as a metaphor for something greater, the young filmmaker hits enough original notes of his own to create a slightly off kilter, but very well directed bit of low key creepiness.
In a not too distant future celebrity culture has become so much of a commodity that even the most tangential woes and transgressions of the rich and famous are bought and sold wholesale. Viruses that incubate in the cells of the stars can be yours for a nominal fee. You too can have the same nausea, chills, and bed sores as the sickly starlet Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). All you have to do is head on down to the Landry Clinic where a team of professionals, including the equally sickly looking, but not exactly ill Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), can inject you with the feeling of “stardom”.
The first half of the film feels like vintage Cronenberg Sr., but with a twist. The younger Cronenberg has far more of an acute visual eye than his father did in his early years. The pristine whites and deep, dark reds pop off the screen and everything feels as tightly controlled as a medical clinic should look and feel. It’s equal parts clinical and sterile, with just a hint of superiority that such an enterprise would have. It exudes exclusivity when really it’s simply all about sickness. It’s a world where copies of People Magazine and Hello! look like they would be right at home on even the lowliest of coffee tables, and indeed when one hears the unmistakable droning of Ben Mulroney (who deserves major kudos for getting the joke here) on a nearby television set it gels that the world around these characters has become so consumed with celebrity that there isn’t room for any colour anymore outside of the new normal.
In the ultimate metaphor for today’s more modernized concept of living vicariously through cinema, the viruses – already processed and created synthetically in controlled laboratories – can be bootlegged, and once Syd tries making some money for himself in the underground black market, the film begins to stumble a bit. If the first half of the film mimics his father’s desire to subtly creep people out, the film’s overlong and somewhat needlessly convoluted second hour follows in his father’s more recent footsteps. It becomes a cold and distant look at the corporatization of celebrity culture that just isn’t fully able to sustain the remainder of the film.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some really interesting themes and concepts at play. Jones does an excellent job of deteriorating before our eyes both mentally and physically as the virus he’s smuggled out of his office on the sly – the one that appears to be slowly killing Hanna, who convalesces in a hospital bed – and he finds himself caught up in corporate espionage and in pretty deep with the people he promised the virus to.
This section doesn’t work as well because it feels like a longer walk than necessary for a pretty obvious conclusion. The film was reportedly trimmed following its debut at Cannes, and it’s easy to see where several other cuts could be made. The pacing of the film already feels deliberately languid to the point where the intent seems to be to make the audience feel under the effects of cold medicine (in a good way), but once talk turns to the business side of the viral trade there isn’t as much satisfaction to be gained.
Brandon Cronenberg’s intent here is pretty obvious, but the film just ends up going too long for its own good, circling over the somewhat obvious for a great deal of time before simply just deciding that it needs to end. It’s also pretty disingenuous to outright compare him to his father as a filmmaker since aside from covering a lot of the same subtextual material, they have vastly different eyes for visuals. It might not be perfect, but it does help to establish him as a person to keep an eye on for the future. If anything, it will definitely make you want to wash your hands with extra care the next time you’re in front of a sink.