As a stomach-churning, jet-black satire of modern culture, Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral is a resounding success, and is directed with precision and conviction. However, for these very reasons, it's also cold, sterile and mostly void of humanity or even emotion. It's possible that the latter characteristics should be counted in the film's favor too though, since they are clearly part of Cronenberg's intention, but that doesn't mean everyone's going to actually enjoy watching the thing.
Just to get this out of the way: Yes, Brandon is David's son, and yes, it's nearly impossible to ignore that Antiviral occasionally echoes films like Videodrome, eXistenZ and The Brood both visually and conceptually. But Cronenberg Jr. also definitively establishes his own directorial voice, so no more dad comparisons for the rest of the review.
The somewhat convoluted sci-fi story-backdrop is set up with with impressive
narrative economy. Basically, society has become so obsessed with celebrities,
that companies have started banking off of buying blood samples from mega-stars
and infecting customers with the same diseases. This practice apparently makes fans feel even closer to the stars they adore. It's an inspired idea in a satirical sense, but it also takes a bit of a leap to get on board with the concept as a plausible dystopian scenario. Culture's obsession with celebrities has indeed grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years, but, to the best of my knowledge, most people still hate diseases. This attitude has not changed in a long time.
But let's give it a pass -- Cronenberg does a very nice job laying out the logic and process behind this world, and at the very least, it's a funny idea. Now then, Syd March works at one of these companies, but he's also erasing the copyright data of the celebrity-viruses his company owns rights to and then selling the viruses to black market distributors. Naturally, this gets him into trouble, both because that's illegal, and also because, in order to steal the viruses, he must first inject them into himself.
a scathing, Philip K. Dick-type plunge into a film noir rabbit hole. Or perhaps
we should say film blanche; (Sorry.) the entire movie looks like it was shot in
a doctor's office, with sets consisting mostly of bright lights and white backgrounds.
The precise editing and shot-composition also add to the feeling of complete
sterilization. Visually, it makes 2001: A Space Odyssey look like Jean-Luc Godard film.
Rest assured though, the clean white surfaces will be stained dark-red by the end of the film. In fact, Cronenberg's obsession with rubbing our faces in painful medical procedures and virus symptoms borders on fetish, and is perhaps the most refreshingly unhinged aspect of the film. Anytime someone gets injected with a needle or a piece of skin removed (or worse), you'll be seeing it in extreme close-up.
The performances and dialogue reinforce the cold,
detached vibe too, with characters only departing from monosyllabic
mumbling when they are in immense pain or making some sort of pointed
commentary about society. Caleb Landry Jones works extremely well to this end playing
March. His only expressions throughout the movie are disgust, indifference and
And yet, there's something strangely compelling about the
intensity of the eyes, or perhaps just the sheer amount of time he can
maintain a piercing glare. Also, as he becomes more and more sick in the movie, the performance becomes intentionally hilarious and dead-pan.
actors (including Malcom McDowell in a small part) are equally well-cast and
occasionally get to have a bit more fun than Jones. That said, if you need to
have even a little bit of empathy for a film's characters to enjoy watching it,
this probably isn't the movie for you.
The aims of
Cronenberg's approach to the material are obvious, and while some will argue
that he took the task of creating a soulless emotional void of a future a bit
too seriously, I admired the film's conviction, including its reluctance to
pander to the audience with pop-culture winks, or even cast any known actors in
large roles. The ideas here are imaginative and often clever, but never actually mind-blowing, like the best work in this genre. And while there's zero-time spent worrying about what's going to happen to the characters, there is a fair amount of time spent wondering, and Cronenberg's got a few great pay-offs up his sleeve in this department. It's a strong debut, and one which does indeed feel like the director accomplished exactly what he set out to do. Now I'm interested to see what happens the young Chronenberg loses control and lets himself go a little more.