Plenty has been written about the films of David Cronenberg.
I hate to paint myself into a corner, but I’m one of the rare few who has failed to draw much inspiration from his collective works. Oh, I find them smartly made and expertly assembled. I think they’re exceedingly well told, as well. But, in their own ubiquitous way, I’ve found them a bit too emotionally detached (in most cases), meaning that the stories truly mean little to me as a viewer. Sure, I get the message – science has run amuck, society has run amuck, passion has run amuck, etc. – but I haven’t been touched in that mysterious way that compels me to think all that much about what’s being presented. Rather, I’m drawn in by the presentation – perhaps I’m studying the magician’s handiwork when I should just be enjoying the show? – and it all ends up feeling a bit too clinical. A bit too cold.
Now, Brandon Cronenberg – son of David – has burst onto the scene; and, in one fell swoop, I’m forced to re-think everything I’ve ever thought I’d be saying about a Cronenberg. This revelation comes as I found almost nearly everything in 2012’s Antiviral to be inspired, didactic, and (oh so) satisfying … in a bone-chilling sort of way.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“In a blackly satirical near future, a thriving industry sells celebrity illnesses to their obsessed fans. Employee Syd March’s attempt to exploit the system backfire when they involve him in a potentially deadly mystery.”
In the not-too-distant future, our cultural obsession with celebrity has even brought medical science into the fray. Patrons with enough cash to spend can now suffer the same flu that once afflicted their favorite pop star, media icon, or silver screen legend. Naturally, everything comes at a price, but no celebrity is commanding a higher price-tag from the Lucas Clinic than screen siren Hannah Geist (an intoxicating Sarah Gadon), an effervescent blonde bombshell the paparazzi can’t get enough of (thick and heavy shades of Marilyn Monroe here). Syd March (played by the increasingly impressive Caleb Landry Jones) keeps a day job injecting consumers with these viruses, but he’s secretly making a living behind-the-scenes by smuggling them out of the clinic inside his own body, parlaying them for greater personal profit on a burgeoning black market. However, things go quickly from bad to worse when Syd secretly contracts Geist’s latest flu only to discover it’s fatal. Before he knows what he’s done, the young entrepreneur finds himself caught between corporate conspirators who’ll stop at nothing to have the greatest and latest designer viruses for mass market consumption!
Jones is particularly successful at conveying both the good and bad in his character. With his streetwise, cocksure attitude, he can easily persuade those hungry consumers to reach for their wallets in order to share a one-of-a-kind experience with their idols; but he’s also blessed with a cynical outlook that underscores how he sees himself as little more than a drone shucking the latest wares in the next get-rich-quick scheme for the pharmaceutical industry. He’s dressed just like every one of the cronies he waits in line with each day, and – with the eyes of a winsome, aging adolescent – he spies Geist on the television and in person with an honest envy that quietly asks, “How can I get me some of that?!”
By contrast, the media-version of Gadon practically exudes sexiness even with an act as simple as taking off her sunglasses. Airbrushes images of her fill up magazine covers and modern art posters everywhere Cronenberg’s camera looks – in public and in private – and we’re never even shown the ‘real deal’ when Syd shows up in her posh hotel room to extract the virus: her eyes are protected under a sleep mask, but the next time we see her in private, we’re in for our own rude awakening as she’s started to succumb to the ravages of a designer infection manufactured exclusively for her DNA.
Be warned: there’s a fair amount of blood (and bloodiness) sprinkled throughout Antiviral. I never found any of it gratuitous in any way; rather, it entirely serves the purposes of the narrative, one that explores exactly how intimate a price society demands for the price of celebrity. And all of it is handled in a very film noir manner: red splashes almost entirely on white, and the contrast is indeed unsettling.
I will say that I was modestly put off by the simplicity of the ending – I thought that last reveal was a bit predictable given the boldness of everything that came before it. However, like any good Hitchcockian mystery, it isn’t always how the victim survives his (or her) encounter; sometimes, the only way to endure is to live another day. There may be little nobility in it … but it sure beats dying.
Antiviral (2012) is produced by Alliance Films, TF1 International, Telefilm Canada, Ontario Media Development Corporation, Rhombus Media, and a few others (if you’re that interested, check out the remainder at IMDB.com). DVD distribution is being handled through MPI Media Group. As for the technical specifications? Wow! This is one brilliantly rendered film, and the high quality sights and sound only add to the experience. Lastly, if it’s special features you’re looking for, then you’re in for some treats: there’s an audio commentary with Cronenberg and cinematographer Karim Hussain as well as a relatively in-depth ‘making of’ documentary that explores the satire in good measure.
Highest recommendation possible.
I can’t remember a better time than the last year for there to be so many intelligent and smartly crafted science fiction films in release. Upstream Color (2013) was one. Vanishing Waves (2012) was another. Now you can add Antiviral to that short list. While those first two were very similar in tone and execution, Brandon Cronenberg’s picture maintains a sharper, more critical, and more nuanced eye with a purpose of stripping down our culture to its barest traits – our obsession with celebrity – and turns it entirely upside-down in the most biting way since perhaps some of Stanley Kubrick’s stuff or maybe even David Cronenberg’s catalogue (which I tend to find a bit overrated for my tastes). Now, the son shows that ‘genius may just well run in the family’ with a debut project that certainly promises good things to come from the promising filmmaker.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with a Blu-ray DVD copy of Antiviral by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.