Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Producer: Niv Fichman
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, Sheila McCarthy, Wendy Crewson, Malcolm McDowell
In a celebrity-obsessed culture where fans infect themselves with viruses from their idols, Syd March must discover the origins of a deadly new strain that threatens his life.
David Cronenberg made a mark in the genre with his exploration of body horror themes including physical transformation and transmogrification. Now, progeny, protégée, and prodigy Brandon Cronenberg follows in his father’s footsteps while managing to sidestep the man’s shadow at the same time. These sentences will be the last time that this review mentions the familial connection. Because despite thematic similarities with the senior Cronenberg’s body of cinema, Brandon Cronenberg is clearly a talent deserving of recognition for his work and not for his parentage, and his film stands on its own.
Celebrity obsession was only the first way that society in “Antiviral” was transformed. So thoroughly hypnotized by famous personalities is the general population that dressing and living like their favorite icons no longer fully satisfies. The hippest trend is now to inject one’s self with the same cold, flu, or STD that afflicts the rich and famous. Red carpet questions in the real world ask, “who are you wearing?” Within the following week, housewives and soccer moms take their People magazines and purchase knock-off designer dresses to emulate celebrity style. “Antiviral” instead asks, “what do you have?” Illness is the hottest commodity, and afflicting the masses with trendsetting ailments is big business.
The social commentary on celebrity obsession is hardly subtle. TV clips in set backgrounds highlight the absurdity of a TMZ addicted culture with FLIR enhanced images of a celebrity crotch shot and featured stories on anus ordeals. Never revealed as actors, musicians, or anything else, names like Timothy Stanton and Michael Felix are celebrities for celebrity’s sake, not unlike their non-fiction counterparts with cable television reality shows. But there is a demonstrated restraint to the commentary angle as the horror takes center stage in “Antiviral.”
Syd March is a technician at The Lucas Clinic, a company that gives its healthy clients what they want: sickness. Lucas has an exclusive contract for the pathogens of Hannah Geist, perhaps the hottest female celebrity around. Syd has a side business of undoing the copy protection on patented viruses and shepherding them onto the black market. But he uses his own body to carry the merchandise. And when he injects himself with the same illness that later kills Hannah, Syd has to find a cure before he suffers the same fate.
Through crisp cuts between static camera shots and a deliberately Spartan production design, “Antiviral” establishes its consuming atmosphere immediately. Simple, chic, and elegant, omnipresent white walls and slim lined architecture wash the world in stifling sterility. It has the subconscious effect of confining the audience wholly within its walls, afraid to move or otherwise spoil the hospital-like tone. Depictions of mouth sores and bloody infections are more skin crawling as a result of immersion in an obsessively clean environment.
“Antiviral” is comfortable with its sleek and unique styling. Glamour is portrayed against stark and open backdrops. The world consumes food that, no matter its shape, is still formed from the same generic mass of tofu beige Play-Doh. Even character names have their own distinct flavor on the tongue: Hannah Geist, Aria Noble, Vole and Tesser.
The film is confident enough to move at its own pace. Its movements are not forced by scriptwriting formulas or typical film trappings. The deliberate slowness is precise to a point, but once the perpetual mood of “Antiviral” is ingrained in the mind, the slowness becomes more noticeable. So acclimated does one become to the atmosphere that the runtime starts to seem mildly oppressive in the latter half of the film.
There is also an issue with Syd’s relatability. Actor Caleb Landry Jones has the sickly glow and brow peering stare of the character down pat. He is as overwhelmed by the domineering atmosphere as the audience. But his ongoing lack of reaction and the missing insight into his motivations puts up a frustrating wall that makes his identity inaccessible.
Yet while there are mild issues with the structure and characterizations, categorizing the film as effective would still be an understatement. “Antiviral” is neither a gross out nor a jump scare fright film. “Antiviral” is under the skin body horror. Those who cringe at the sight of needles penetrating skin will turn their heads away multiple times throughout. And those who are fascinated by fresh concepts and unique ideas will have numerous occasions to stare in wonderment. This is the first feature that every filmmaker wishes s/he could make. “Antiviral” is not a grand slam, but it is a resounding crack that announces Brandon Cronenberg as an interesting new voice in the genre.
Review Score: 80