We all bemoan the lack of intelligence in movies; the push for the lowest common denominator “make ‘em go boom” mentality in filmmaking, but occasionally a movie can also be too smart for its own good, subsuming narrative flow under an onslaught of ideas. Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral is just such a film, bombarding the audience with a heady stew of concepts that are more intriguing and compelling than actually involving.
Why are we so obsessed with celebrity? That’s the central question behind the mix of body horror, mad science and satire at the heart of Antiviral. In the near future, celebrity worship has reached such an extreme that fans eat meat bred from cloned muscle cells and pay large amounts to have actual viruses for sick celebrities injected right into them. That’s right – for a hefty fee, you can have your own designer flu or herpes simplex virus.
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a top salesman for the Lucas Foundation, sneaks out viruses in his own body to sell on the black market. When he finds himself in the unique position to have first access to the latest sickness contracted by the world’s biggest star, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), he naturally injects himself – only to find that the disease is fatal and that his search for a cure has made him a wanted man amongst the black marketers.
And that’s just scratching the surface of Cronenberg’s film. The debuting filmmaker has a lot to say about everything from tabloid obsession to copyright infringement, filtered through the same mutant sci-fi sensibilities that defined the early career of his father, David. But the younger Cronenberg doesn’t so much tell an engaging story than yoke a series of bullet points to an increasingly convoluted narrative, art directed with a heavy dose of sterile white-walled beauty.
Like his father, Cronenberg favors viewing his story through a detached reserve, but forgets that beneath the chilly intellectualism that Cronenberg pere runs a seething hot blooded-ness, which is why he can turn a monster movie remake into a tragic romance or a staid period drama about the founding of modern psychology into one of the year’s most secretly erotic films. The younger Cronenberg may learn that trick yet, but right now he prefers to not deliver an emotional access point, and that results in a film that’s more fascinating than enthralling.
The young filmmaker does have a keen compositional sense and acute knowledge of how to make his film look good, and he gets a downright terrific performance out of Jones, remarkable considering that Syd remains an unsympathetic cipher throughout. And like papa, Cronenberg has a knack for visceral, provocative and outré gross outs. But in his rush to deliver his themes, he forgets to tell a story worth caring about well, rushing through a series of events with little sense of rhythm or momentum. Antiviralisn’t bad, but it could’ve been better, and displays a fair degree of talent to watch out for in the future – as long as Cronenberg doesn’t let his ideas get ahead of him.