The two core themes of the film are emphasized perfectly in this image.

Antiviral is the first feature from Brandon Cronenberg and comparisons with his father’s work are both appropriate and apt. Channeling much of the body horror that made dad famous in the 80’s Cronenberg the Younger also seems to be interested in the same creepy, potentially insightful relationships between people and their bodies as well as the technology we use to alter them. Probably smaller in scale and scope than some of dad’s more famous work, Antiviral is nonetheless an affecting work balancing two thematic masters.

The first is the relationship between celebrities and the rest of us, especially the earnest and even haunted true fan. The other is the intimacy of disease. As sonny C put it himself, the film deals with the sort of unexamined connection between people when they pass each other communicable diseases. In Antiviral, an entire industry has been built up around using the latter to exploit the former. The resulting creep factor is as interesting as it is fresh. And yes, it is totally fucking unsettling too.

Antiviral is the kind of film I’d seek out early in University when I first obtained the power to seek out and watch obscure films. For those of us who enjoy the strange subgenre of body horror, of which dad is the crowned king, Antiviral will be most familiar and satisfying.

Without seeming to mean to, Antiviral slyly makes pointed criticisms of celebrity and consumer culture.

Rather than taking place in the near future, Antiviral takes place in an alternate now. In its version of 2012ish Canada,the science of genetic engineering seems to have been allowed to progress unabated by the same types of ethical and technical obstacles that have kept it at bay in the real world. In this movie, it is possible to erase the contagious elements of a viral infection or grow tissue from the cells of your favorite starlet so you can get skin grafts or even eat them. The way the technology, some of it downright silly, informs the premise makes Antiviral a solid science fiction film as well. Only knowing about the virus stuff going in, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Kid Cronenberg did a lot of conceptual work and world-building to make this stuff hum.

This is really evident in the silly tech I mentioned. The technicians/salesmen of The Lucas Clinic are able to use a machine that translates a virus’s DNA into something like a human face. Then, relying on the technician’s ability to subconsciously recognize expressions and body language, the tool can be used to alter the virus and change its attributes. It’s as silly as it sounds, but somehow it works. This has a lot to do with the personality it injects into these viruses. They are identified by an item code, but also by a picture of a warped face, the “face” of the virus. I almost wish I could find a picture of one but Google does not abide. It’s a good thing though as it will surprise you like it did me.

Here’s some creepy fucking shit to compensate.

Lucas Clinic is a company that sells celebrity viruses to fans. Just as there is a legitimate business involving this stuff, there’s also a seedy underground. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones doing breakout work) is a sale rep for Lucas and he’s very good at it. On the side, he smuggles viruses and sells them to Arvid (Joe Pingue), a butcher of “cell steaks” who also fences stolen viruses from a network of reps like Syd. Cell steaks are sort of the gross, blue collar side of the more exclusive virus trade. They are literally lab-grown flesh made from the cells of various celebrities and then sold to fans to be eaten. Not only could you buy a Kardashian’s herpes simplex, but you could eat some cloned Kardashian as well. That’s not even the fucked up part.

The fucked up part is that someone has infected Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) with some kind of killer virus. Syd steals it and ends up in the middle of a conspiracy that’s basically riding the underbelly of mass hysteria over Geist’s apparent death. Along the way, he has to figure out a way to not only survive, but exploit his position. Syd’s apparent self-interest makes him a bit distant as a character but Antiviral isn’t really worried about you liking any of its characters. You pretty much won’t, by the way, as the film retains a cold distance from everyone and everything in it. Syd wants to be cured, so he helps Hannah’s people try to find one by trying to track down who changed the virus to be deadly and why. This part of the film feels a bit like a noir, but is basically unenjoyable as we watch a physically decrepit Syd ineffectually stumble into answers.

To the extent that Antiviral briefly tries to be a mystery/detective movie, it fails.

Celebrities are willing participants in this business.

And yet, Antiviral is striving to be a somewhat subtle study of the psychology of the true fan. One of the reasons Syd is interesting, if not likable, is that he may actually be just as much of a fan of Geist as any of the people he sells to. The film is subtle in making this point, right up til the end, but it’s there. It doesn’t necessarily explain why Syd is stealing from his company (there’s certainly no indication of what he needs the money for), but I like to think he’s doing it so he can afford to one day buy a Hannah Geist virus. This is total speculation, though, the film leaves little to go on.

This ties into what is its core weakness, I think. Antiviral has a lot of fresh ideas and they are mostly well expressed, but it is also overlong and rhythmic without much characterization. The lack of characterization makes the “trippy” scenes, which seem placed at regular intervals, feel overly symmetrical and a bit sloggy. The first one (from which I pulled that weird picture of Syd’s face) hits with a big splash, but the rest have diminishing returns. For most of the movie, you’re unsure about why anyone is doing what they’re doing. The movie is more concerned with tone than story and while it’s perfectly effective to emphasize a film in that way, it usually helps to feature some strong characterization to pull the audience through the ambiguity. However, Antiviral lacks that.

Whether or not it makes up for it in pure atmosphere and creep factor is going to be up to the viewer.

Malcolm McDowell gets a nice cameo.

If I’d been Cronenberg II, I’d have chopped about 20 minutes out of the movie. It does feel too long and too aimless for too much of its running time. By the time you see where it’s going, you’re watching Syd in the middle of the final (albeit scariest) scene of the film and you’re still left vaguely confused about how and why this all happened. And what it means with regard to the themes.

The one thing that is crystal clear is that Syd has been motivated, at least in part, by his own fandom for Hannah Geist. I imagine this is supposed to be retroactively illuminating but it doesn’t really work. You think back to all the 2 hours you’ve been following this guy and this revelation yields very little insight that doesn’t still depend heavily on speculation. Like my “why does Syd need money?” theory. It’s possible that I may have missed some vital piece of information but I doubt it.

The imbalance of the film’s narrative leaves it feeling like the first-timer movie that it is. I have no doubt that Brandon Cronenberg is going to show us wonderful and horrible things in the future. It’s nice to see he’s started off with something that, though flawed, manages to express its themes effectively on an atmospheric and tonal level. I’d have liked a stronger, more coherent story, but this type of film usually errs on the side of ambiguity so your mileage may vary.

The attention to detail in the imagery and composition is totally… Cronenbergian.