Directed by Brandon Cronenberg.
Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, Sheila McCarthy, Wendy Crewson and Malcolm McDowell.
In the near future, corporations make fortunes by selling celebrity sicknesses to obsessed fans. Seeking to profit for himself, an employee soon stumbles upon a sinister mystery involving his companies most prized client.
It’s not an original observation to say that we live in a society with a profoundly unhealthy obsession with celebrities. Magazines, blogs and TV shows devote pages and hours of coverage to the lives of people we don’t and probably will never know personally. Yet we can’t help but care about them for some reason. This brings me to today’s entry, Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral, a sci-fi horror that offers a nightmare vision of the dark paths our obsession might lead us down.
A slow-burning satire, Antiviral depicts a disturbing world in which society’s celebrity obsession has reached beyond the grubby headlines of tabloids and reality TV and into our very bodies. Celebrities have gone beyond lending their names to perfumes or clothing lines. Instead, when they become ill, they sell their sickness to a populace all too eager to infect themselves in a bizarre attempt to feel closer to their idols.
Perhaps the creepiest aspect of this world are the celebrity meat farms, butcher shops in which celebrity cells are used to grow famous “meat”, thus allowing fans to eat pieces of their chosen idols in a sickening form of quasi-cannibalism. The satirical elements depicting this world, while perhaps a tad obvious, are still terrifying to contemplate, managing to be just subtle enough to get the point across without hitting you over the head with it. The image of corporations competing with each other to secure lucrative contracts to sell celebrity illnesses is a concept that is both suitably horrifying and darkly hilarious.
I was struck, in particular, by a scene suggesting a virtual afterlife for dead celebrities. A moment in which protagonist Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) stumbles upon a TV screen of Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) asking him for instructions, almost akin to a kind of interactive sexual role play. It’s a curious moment that, although not dwelled on for long, comes across like a mix between Black Mirror and, in a possible sly visual reference by Cronenberg to his father David, a scene from the similarly satirical 80s horror Videodrome.
Caleb Landry Jones delivers a fearless performance as Syd March, an employee at The Lucas Clinic, a corporation that sells the sickness of the stars. Jones, with a seemingly perpetual stare, makes for an intense and, at times, unsettling protagonist. Syd’s sales pitch to clients, in which he comments on how “he can see why” they are interested in a particular celebrity, is skin crawling, with Jones’s slow, creepy delivery sounding almost like extracts from a stalker’s letter.
If they gave out awards for playing sick in film, then Jones should win them all. The actor regularly forced to squeeze his face into various forms of painful-looking discomfort while hunched over as Syd injects himself with all manner of celebrity sicknesses. And that’s before we get to the bloody vomit and a genuinely menacing image of Jones smiling as blood drips from his lips. While he is not given much to do other than look creepy or sick, Jones still leaves his mark with his highly captivating and often exhausting performance.
The visual style and production design are cold and sterile, placing a heavy emphasis on the almost blinding porcelain white walls of the offices of the Lucas Clinics and Syd’s apartment. The lack of colour almost suggests, in my admittedly pretentious and perhaps over-analytical interpretation, that the need for the celebrity obsession is to add “colour” to what is a dull and colourless existence. While there are occasional moments of handheld camerawork, much of the film is shot with static camera placements, creating a lifeless detached feeling that melds well with the glacial pace.
While Antiviral’s world and themes are well realised and fascinating to contemplate, where the film struggles is in its story. It starts off strong, showing Syd using himself as an incubator to steal celebrity illnesses to sell on the black market. However, the main story concerning star client Hannah Geist takes far too long to get going, and even when it does, it’s surprisingly disappointing.
There are certainly hints of what avenues the story could have gone down. Suggestions about Syd’s already present obsession with Hannah could have allowed for further satirical commentary and possibly a spin on the celebrity stalker trope. Yet, the film doesn’t take advantage of the potential it dangles in front of itself. The slow pacing also becomes an issue in the final third of the film, moving so slowly to the point that it risks becoming dull. However, I did admire the ending, which offers us a dark closer that takes the concept of celebrity obsession created by this world to a truly monstrous and horrifying conclusion.
While it may have issues with its story, its fascinating satirical world and the queasy central performance from Caleb Landry Jones allow Antiviral to make its mark as a disturbing and sometimes darkly funny commentary on the nightmarish possible endgame of our celebrity obsession. Check it out if you’re curious.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★