In a more enlightened world, the value of a person would be based on factors such as empathy, creativity and intelligence. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. We’re stuck with this one. Hence, a celebrity seen walking down the street has an entire news story devoted to them. The results of talent competitions make national news while more relevant stories go without coverage. People go to plastic surgeons, not just to have a little work done, but to look like the person on the cover of Us Weekly.
If the latter ever becomes the norm, the next step might be the world presented in ANTIVIRAL, a scathing indictment of our obsession with celebrities and the people who exploit it.
The Lucas Clinic is a new kind of health provider. Actually, “health provider” is a bit of a misnomer, since what the Lucas Clinic does is precisely the opposite. ANTIVIRAL actually allows a step our society is not yet ready to take, the idea that celebrities are human and subject for physical ailments. When celebrities are infected with viruses from the flu to herpes, they become even more human and establish a closeness to their fan base. Businesses like Lucas take a sample of the virus and render it non-contagious, a process they refer to as “copy protection.” Fans come in and pay top dollar to be injected with the same virus as their idols, the fans’ cells becoming one with theirs.
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) sells these viruses to prospective buyers, hocking illness like he would a used car. He’s also been stealing viruses from work, bypassing the security checks by injecting it into his own system. Yes, he gets sick but he also is given access to a virus he can manipulate and sell to the black market. This means that Syd is sick almost every day and trying to hide the various natures of illnesses from his suspicious bosses.
Things really heat up for Syd when he is sent to retrieve a virus from the bloodstream of the Lucas Clinic’s biggest client, the celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). Like everything else, he injects it into his own system, only to find that it is a potentially terminal disease. As he tried to cure the illness, various interested parties are after the virus as well. And that’s when the paranoia in ANTIVIRAL really ramps up.
ANTIVIRAL is directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Yes, he’s David Cronenberg’s son and yes, he has created a body horror film in the same spirit as his father’s earlier work. But a lot of the similarities end there. The junior Cronenberg’s style is different enough to stand out on his own and warrant any further comparisons meaningless.
Cronenberg shoots with an eye for a clean, antiseptic world, which is contrasted with the sickness exhibited by Syd and the fans. With the aid of cinematographer Karim Hussein (HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, director SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY), we are treated to a color scheme that is antiseptic and very, very white. Even dingy alleys or dimly lit backrooms have a certain uniform quality to it that makes the people inhabiting the sets seem like abnormalities, viruses themselves.
Jones plays Syd with a certain feral quality. He is a selfish agent of capitalism who has his own schemes coming back to haunt him. And yet, he does not seem to recognize or be concerned about any failings in his own personality or what it represents in the big picture. Jones is made up so that his physical failings are evident, his complexion impossibly pale with a multitude of freckles all over his body. As the film wears on, Syd gets sicker and the walls seem to be closing in on him. Syd in turn looks more and more like a cornered animal.
ANTIVIRAL is speculative, socially conscious sci-fi with a feel reminiscent of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. It’s an indictment on a definite sickness that exists in our own society. The people of ANTIVIRAL are injected with the diseases of celebrities, they eat steaks grown from the fat cells of their heroes and people become famous for loving the famous. These services are for the people who have gone beyond worship in their idolatry. They don’t want to look up to celebrities, they want to be them. They want to be the people themselves – have their skin, their cells, their very breath. They want to be so close that they would crawl inside of these luminaries if they could. And even that might not be enough.
ANTIVIRAL is an appropriately grotesque film with a devastating diagnosis of what ails the world and the cynical presumption that no one is clamoring for a cure. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Not rated, but the equivalent to an “R” for graphic biological footage and some sexual situations.
– Running time: 1hr 48 mins.
IFC Midnight’s Blu-ray looks great with intense, appropriately uncomfortable detail popping through on the 1080p image. Extras include:
- Commentary with Brandon Cronenberg and Karim Hussein (including a bit at the end that shows they at least have a sense of humor about the dark material)
- Anatomy of a Virus: the Making of Antiviral
- Deleted scenes (about 5 and a half minutes worth), with or without commentary
- Behind the scenes footage
- Theatrical trailer