Antiviral (Canada, 2012)
When Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King, started his career as a writer, he did everything he could to distance himself from his father’s work — he took up a pen name, worked initially in a different genre before giving in to his love of horror and fantasy, and developed a style very much his own. Even now, there is no mistaking Hill’s work for that of his father. This is not quite the case with Brandon Cronenberg, son of David.
In an ideal world, it would be possible to discuss Brandon Cronenberg’s feature début on its own merit; Antiviral cleaves so strongly to the themes of his father’s early films that it is impossible to do so. While the style of the film is very much Brandon’s own, the subject matter would allow it to fit in anywhere in his father’s work of the 1980s.
Antiviral tells the story of Syd March, a young technician and salesman for The Lucas Clinic, a biotech company that sells celebrity diseases. In the near-future world of Antiviral, celebrity culture has reached bizarre extremes — it is possible to buy meat made from cloned cells of your favourite celebrity at a specialist butcher shop; news broadcasts cover nothing but celebrity gossip; full-body clones of celebrities are close to market; and companies like The Lucas Clinic take blood samples from celebrities when they are ill, isolate the pathogen, and sell it to fans who wish to become closer to their idols by sharing their diseases.
March uses his position at the clinic to smuggle diseases out within his own body, using illegal equipment in his home to crack the copy protection on the modified diseases, which then returns them to an infectious state. March then sells these diseases to a pirate organisation which distributes them on the black market.
Complications arise when March injects himself with a blood sample from the celebrity Hannah Geist, only to discover that the disease she carries may be more unusual and dangerous than he anticipated. From this point on, he is a pinball bouncing around in a game of deceit, betrayal, failing health and a breakdown of his own reality, ultimately leading him to fight for survival and seek revenge. The parallels with Videodrome are unmissable.
March is played by Caleb Landry Jones, who brings a sinister, dispassionate and thoroughly alien grace to the role. You are left in no doubt that this is a man capable of anything, and he is never less than a compelling presence. This dispassion fits perfectly into the stark, antiseptic tone of Antiviral, with its stark white sets and harsh lighting. The film is deliberately paced and filled with subtle menace.
While body horror is very much at the forefront, elements of Antiviral also owe much to the Cyberpunk movement. The story of intellectual property theft and back-street pirates using modified technology to refine and mutate corporate products could have come straight out of a William Gibson novel. Cronenberg also uses science fiction to parody the lunacy of our own celebrity-obsessed culture by taking it to ludicrous extremes. The more macabre aspects of this reminded me of Vaughan in JG Ballard’s Crash and his need to create the perfect death for himself by engineering a fatal car accident involving Elizabeth Taylor.
While Antiviral hasn’t allowed Brandon Cronenberg to forge an identity separate from his father, it is a thoughtful, beautifully shot film that offers a sharp critique of celebrity culture, leaving us wondering who is the disease and who is the host in this relationship.