56th BFI London Film Festival Review – Antiviral (2012)

Antiviral, 2012.

Directed by Brandon Cronenberg.
Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue and Nicholas Campbell.

SYNOPSIS:

In a celebrity obsessed future, a company sells viruses that have been harvested from celebrities. However, when an employee becomes infected with a lethal disease, he faces a race against the clock in order to save his life.

Are you a fan of a particular celebrity or musician? What would you do in order to meet them and get to know them? Would you say you’re obsessed by them? Would you share a disease with them in order to get spiritually closer to them? Would you eat a pound of their flesh?

Antiviral, the directorial debut of Brandon Cronenberg (son of acclaimed cult favourite director, David Cronenberg) is set in a world where the answer to all those questions is yes. Celebrity culture has consumed society to the point that butchers sell steaks cloned from the muscle cells of celebrities and the biggest pharmaceutical companies are selling infections harvested from the rich and famous. Fancy Hugh Jackman’s flu? How about herpes from Angelina Jolie?

All these and more are on sale, both legally and illegally, in the near-future world of Antiviral.

The film centres on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones; The Last Exorcism, X-Men: First Class), who works for one of these companies. He’s also infecting himself with diseases in order to sneak them out of the facility and make extra cash selling them to street dealers. However, he bites off more than he can chew when he infects himself with the latest product from gorgeous megastar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon; A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis) When he discovers that Hannah has died from this latest illness, which we discover is a deadly virus, Syd is on a race against time to find out what the virus was, how he can cure himself, and who infected Hannah Geist?

The best part of the film is its lampooning of our modern celebrity culture. What is essentially a reductio ad absurdum of this trend in society is played totally straight, and is thus far more chilling and appalling to watch. Filmed at a flat angle, with a grey filter in pristine white environments, Brandon creates a cold, sterile atmosphere, reflecting the emptiness that exists within those obsessed by celebrity. There’s an element of Orwell’s 1984 to the whole affair, with characters under observation through security cameras, and constant rolling news and channels that put celebrities, literally, under the microscope.

Reflective of his father’s work, the film also contains plenty of gore, body horror and shocking images, effectively juxtaposing the pristine, aseptic world of Antiviral. The film in many ways hangs on the performance of Jones, who has to contort his sickened, diseased body in more and more elaborate ways, effectively communicating the toll Syd’s addiction to celebrity has had on him.

However, the film also suffers from several problems. Despite its strong premise and interesting ideas, the film runs out of steam very quickly. The audience is constantly banged over the head with the central message (our fascination with celebrity is silly) and never says anything deeper about why we are so obsessed. It’s also frightfully dull. While Landry Jones gives an amazing performance, there is little to the character of Syd, and little for us to sympathise with or care about. I found my attention drifting off to other things, until the occasional gross-out or shocking image grabbed me again. It’s a very inconsistent experience.

What is set up as an interesting near-future sci-fi soon devolves into a fairly standard film noir murder mystery. A strong first effort by Cronenberg, but a fumbled one.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★

Luke Graham is a writer and graduate. If you enjoyed this review, follow him @LukeWGraham and check out his blog here.

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