Brandon Cronenberg's first feature film, Antiviral, is a creepy enough tale of our society's celebrity obsession taken to a whole new level. In the nearish future, people are no longer satisfied with paparazzi upskirt shots or leaked sex tapes, but are driven to infect themselves with viruses culled from the very bodies of the rich and famous. They even eat meat grown from cells harvested from their favorite celebrity.
Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class, Friday Night Lights) puts in an effective performance as Syd March, an employee of the Lucas Clinic, which is one of many companies that harvests and sells precious diseases from celebrities. The clinic's most famous resource is gorgeous Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), a superstar whose genesis isn't clear and doesn't matter. All that matters is that people will pay top dollar to get close to her, even if that means a shot of Herpes simplex in the lip to mimic a kiss from her.
Syd has a side business smuggling diseases out of the clinic the most surreptitious way possible — using his own body. Whatever disease Geist had last killed her, so he's got to find the cure before succumbing to the mystery illness, all while avoiding the various parties that are interested in the precious cargo he's carrying in his bloodstream. When Syd's healthy, he's precise and detached, with a touch of languid sensuality; once he starts getting sick, he's red-faced and sweaty, and he flops around a lot. That's pretty much it for Landry, and even so, his performance is really the only one worth noting. Gadon, who appeared in Brandon's father David Cronenberg's films A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, is gorgeous, and that's all that's asked of her.
It's difficult to complain about underdeveloped characters in a movie about a shallow society, but varying the film's visual style would made up a little for the thin plot and characters. Most of the sets are slick and white with splashes of red, and Landry Jones is either front and center or otherwise dominating every scene. There are plenty of long tracking shots where we're left to focus on Landry Jones' red ponytail, which grows increasingly disheveled as he gets sicker and sicker. There are tantalizing shifts in tone when Syd travels outside of the Lucas Clinic or his own sterile apartment, but things never get quite as down and dirty as one would hope. There are hints at something really nasty, something worse or more disturbing than eating a delicious Geist steak, but it doesn't surface.
Cronenberg shows promise in Antiviral, while leaning a bit too heavily on the plot's central premise. Making society's obsession with consumerism and celebrity grossly literal is interesting at first, but Cronenberg doesn't go far enough in developing these ideas of celebrities as "group hallucinations" or the infections as "biological communion," as one character describes it. The customers come across as pathetic uber-fans, but that judgment seems to come from the filmmaker and not necessarily the other characters; after all, it's a booming business with its own seedy underground of collectors, traders, and smugglers. There's just not the same frisson of dread and arousal found in the best body horror.
The movie tosses around many ideas about consumption and celebrity, but it's not very meaty (if you'll excuse the term). For all the close-ups of needles puncturing skin, slimy meat, and gobs of dark red blood, Antiviralis a little too clinical. Cronenberg even tosses in some half-baked gender theory at the end, about penetration and self-penetration and mutation, but it doesn't gel. Still, it's a promising stab at feature film for the young filmmaker, who is definitely one to watch.