Syd March is a technician and sales representative for the Lucas Clinic, a company that has exclusive contracts with some of the planet’s hottest celebrities to infect their fans with their illnesses. March is assigned to take a blood sample from Hannah Geist–the crown jewel in the Lucas collection–when she falls ill; he also injects himself with some of her blood with the intention of selling the microbes on the black market. But when the illness suddenly kills Ms. Geist, March must race against time to save his own life…and uncover the disease’s mysterious origins in the process.

And let me tell you, getting injected with a celebrity’s disease so the fan might feel more “at one” with that celebrity is one of the more normal and tasteful things that happens in newcomer Brandon Cronenberg’s feature debut. Syd March’s black market contact works at a butcher shop that sells “cell steaks” cloned from celebrity muscle tissue. Even the celebrities are strange–Geist is rumored to suffer from an unknown deformity that forces her to wear specially-designed underwear (word on the street is that she was born without a vulva, and all I have to say about that is “???”); tabloid reporters take upskirt photos of Aria Noble with thermographic cameras…all the better to provide up-to-the-minute coverage of her “anus ordeal.” (And you think Emma Watson has it rough…) More than once I found myself wondering if Lloyd Kaufman secretly had something to do with this film.

Still, Antiviral provides a wry (if occasionally stomach-churning) commentary on modern celebrity culture. Sure, celebrities in the Antiviral universe are attractive and obsessed-over to the point where eating a few slices of their cloned flesh on a ciabatta roll with some lettuce and sun-dried tomatoes sounds like a splendid idea. And Hannah Geist’s headshot looms large over Syd’s world like a stories-high portrait of a communist dictator. But we’re never actually told what, if anything, these people have achieved, that makes their anus ordeals and reputed lack of vulvae important. Early in the film, Syd’s boss states that “celebrity is not an accomplishment” and that “celebrities are not people” but rather “collaboration[s] we choose to take part in” and “group hallucinations.” Which brings up the tantalizing idea that maybe if we all stop believing in Mama June Shannon she’ll disappear, but I digress.

The extent to which Cronenberg thinks through and develops his themes–in addition to celebrity culture, there’s also a fair bit about intellectual property–makes up a lot of the film’s appeal, which is perhaps a bit too cold and clinical for a film about obsession (to quote something Stephen King once wrote about a Ramsey Campbell novel, Antiviral looks and feels like it was grown in a petri dish) and follows a standard-issue if engaging corporate-thriller plotline. The film’s setting is also a bit underdrawn; as tantalizing as the idea of a “genetic underground” sounds, it turns out that it’s not too much unlike any other black market you’ve seen in any other film.

Characters are drawn broadly and not developed much, with most of the heavy lifting delegated to the cast. Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class, The Last Exorcism) as Syd, Joe Pingue as sardonic black marketeer Arvid, and the great Wendy Crewson as one of Lucas’s corporate rivals all stand out. Malcolm McDowell puts in one of his most memorable performances in ages as Geist’s frosty personal physician. But the most powerful presence in the film is Sarah Gadon (Cosmopolis, A Dangerous Method), whose Hannah Geist hovers over the film, wielding her omniscience like a Marilyn Monroe-shaped God. (This is a particularly notable feat considering that the character only appears in three or four scenes in the entire film; everything else is either portraits or video footage.)

The film’s visuals are as clinical as its tone, which works in the film’s favor (at least for me; I tend to associate fever dreams with gleaming white open spaces). Cronenberg’s style is a bit derivative–he’s working on finding his voice, but he’s not there yet–but he’s got enough technical and aesthetic skill to make it work. The icky nastiness is well done, with emphasis on smaller and more intimate makeup effects (one of Geist’s fans is injected with her herpes virus on the side of his mouth that she’d be more likely to kiss) than massive set-pieces (although there are a couple of those as well). Not recommended for those who are afraid of hypodermics.

Despite a couple of flaws, Antiviral is an audacious and impressive debut feature. While perhaps not as original as one would hope, it’s still daring and memorable enough to justify future inclusion in the canon of science-fiction and horror cult classics.

My rating: 9 of 10.

Canada. 108 minutes. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, Sheila McCarthy, Wendy Crewson, Malcolm McDowell.

Special thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society for bringing this remarkable film to Chicago.

ANTIVIRAL poster

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