I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
It has to be difficult for the children of famous artists if they also have artistic ambitions. When you are a young filmmaker and your father is as well-regarded as David Cronenberg, your last name must be both a blessing and a curse. Not only does the young director have to go through the rigors of making his first feature film, he is also faced with the unfair prospect of being compared to his father.
The ability to watch and learn from such a talented director is evident in writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s debut Antiviral. The story and clinical feel bring to mind the elder Cronenberg’s icier films (think Crash or Spider), but the bone-deep cynicism and nasty sense of humor feel like a more personal statement by the young director.
In a near-future Toronto, fascination with celebrities has reached a level of insanity. It’s no longer enough to know the details of a celebrity’s private life, the public wants to share something…anything with the people they worship. To meet this demand, specialty clinics have been created to provide the fans with diseases that celebrities suffer. The twist is these diseases are taken from the actual celebrities. Do you want to get herpes from supermodel Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon)? No problem, she sold the virus to the Lucas Clinic when she contracted it. The clinic, in turn, cloned the virus and now injects it into willing patients who can afford it.
Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) is a top salesman for the Lucas Clinic. He also is smuggling exclusive viruses out of the clinic by injecting himself with them and selling them on the black market. Not only does this take a toll on his body, his psyche is put through the ringer as paranoia sets in. He is sent to take a blood sample from Hannah when she contracts an unknown illness. Of course he steals a tiny portion of the blood and realizes he has hit a potential jackpot when Hannah dies of her illness. The problem is that he now suffers from the same deadly virus and he soon finds unsavory black market goons on his trail, willing to kill to claim the virus as their own.
The world of Antiviral is a bleak place. It is made up of three different groups of people: celebrities, their obsessed fans, and the parasitic people who make money off both groups. No one shows any happiness in the roles they play in this society. There is only the gaining of fame or money to give their existences any meaning. But even then, the meaning is far from spiritual and more a way of keeping score. Cronenberg turns this reality into a suffocating and sterile world of despair from which he never offers a glimmer of anything better.
This consistency of tone is impressive, but it’s also a problem because the despair and cynical tone eventually becomes oppressive and dreary to take as a viewer. Cronenberg has his actors dial back their performances to the same deadpan affect across the board so that there is never a release from the grim proceedings.
This is especially problematic when it comes to the character of Syd. I don’t need a protagonist to be heroic or even likable, but I do need them to be interesting. But Syd is never given anything beyond his job and his illness to define him. Even then, he’s shown to be no smarter or different from all the horrible people that surround him. Why follow him? He is but one entry point into this story, but his perspective isn’t any more unique than any of the other characters he meets along the way.
Still, the world of the film is incredibly detailed. Cronenberg does a tremendous job of finding all the ways that celebrity worship can be taken to extremes and he finds the macabre humor in such ideas. It’s a bleak, cold movie full of characters that are unlikable. But while I couldn’t care about their plight, their world—as destructive, uncaring, and depressing as it is—remains a fascinating dystopia.
Note: This trailer is NSFW
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