The murky world of celebrity fixation and body modification come in for familiar (or should that be familia?) treatment in Antiviral, the debut feature from Brandon ‘son of David’ Cronenberg. Not so much drawing as demanding comparisons with his father’s oeuvre, Antiviral revels in the kind of peculiar pathologies, twisted flesh and sinister corporate conspiracies that once drove the likes of Rabid and Shivers. But whilst the boy is clearly indebted to Cronenberg Sr., it’s to his credit that he has created something this striking from what could easily be derivative material.
Set in a near future in which celebrity obsession has reached gruesome levels, Antiviral centres on Syd March (the pallid, hypnotically strange Caleb Landry Jones); a salesman for a corporation that infects super fans with diseases extracted from their Z-List idols. An icky dream of corporeal closeness, it’s obvious from Syd’s sales pitch that he shares his client’s fixation, with the revelation that he is using his own body to smuggle diseases onto the black market acting as both a device to hurry the narrative along and a convenient excuse to explore Syd’s obsession with mysterious celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, last seen in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis).
Cronenberg’s use of his Toronto setting is a clever exercise in making the minimal look futuristic, with its cold white surfaces – like Landry Jones’ own waify presence – an effective canvas for a plot that grows increasingly bloody. Inhabiting a world of black market laboratories, butchers growing celebrity meat from stolen cells, and genetically modified diseases that become evermore gruesome, Antiviral starts to sport a conspiracy thriller plot that will eventually do for Geist, and potentially Syd as well.
Along the way we meet Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Abendroth, sporting a selection of celebrity skin grafts to facilitate what he describes as a ’charged’ connection with his patients. It is this creepy notion that rescues Antiviral from a slightly clunky articulation of the cult of celebrity, as well as a messy, if suspenseful, third act. Pulling itself back into the territory of an impressive first half, and ramping up the implicit vampirism, Cronenberg comes up with a moment of ‘biological communion’ to rival even his father. In doing so he may remind us of the brilliance of his bloodline; but no matter. The new flesh, it turns out, ain’t half bad either.