David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, was always going to be measured in the shadow of his father. So for his directorial debut, rather than conspicuously avoiding these comparisons, Cronenberg has doubled down on them with Antiviral – a film that literally cannibalisizes his dad’s legacy to create a coldly clinical look at society’s obsession with celebrity.
The waifish Caleb Landry Jones stars as Syd March, a corporate shill who sells a unique product: the viruses of beloved celebrities. In a culture infatuated with stardom, the lowly public seeks infection with the illnesses of their favourite stars. Syd makes extra cash on the side by selling these exclusive viruses on the black market, smuggling them out of the office by infecting himself (hence his continually emaciated form). When starlet Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) unexpectedly dies, he finds himself in possession of a lethal and highly sought after specimen.
Filled with stark white interiors, Antiviral is rife with that familiar Cronenberg detachment and sterility. Brandon paints a portentous picture of a culture not too far from our own; where banal television shows fixate on the body parts of the rich and famous, and butchers sell meat literally grown from the tissue of those same stars. It’s a frighteningly prescient satire of our current world pushed to an absurdly logical extreme.
Much like his old man’s surrealistic cinematic meditation on the zeitgeist, it is with the narrative of Antiviral where the young Cronenberg frustratingly falters. The second half of the film descends into a convoluted corporate conspiracy mystery that is less interesting than the atmospheric tension of the set-up. It’s not enough to completely derail a starkly impressive debut though. Lacking the icky humour of his father’s best work, Cronenberg nonetheless riffs on several themes from Shivers and Videodrome while taking a rigorous detour into bleak and disaffected territory, making Antiviral of a new and iconoclastic sensibility.
With an obsession for close-ups of needles piercing skin, Antiviral leaves one with a OCD-style desire to wash ones hands. Despite the story falling apart in the back-end, the overreaching success of the film lies in its believable depiction of a culture slowly rotting at the core. Never has the virulent splash of red blood on a white wall been more effectively dynamic.