The ideas in Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral are often astounding. The execution of those ideas in his horror drama is less so, especially when they become a repetitive refrain in the final act. The result is that Antiviral is a fascinating if uneven debut feature for the emerging Canadian director.
Cronenberg's surname sounds familiar because he is the son of acclaimed Toronto filmmaker David Cronenberg. Given Brandon's fascination with corporeal transgressions and moral turpitude, it is obvious the son shares the father's fascination with humanity at the most base level.
But it is also fair to give Brandon Cronenberg his individual due. Antiviral is a unique film that stands separately from David Cronenberg's work, however much it is amusing to make the presumed connections. He may have been inspired growing up in the creative Cronenberg clan, but Brandon was not merely copying his father's early work when he wrote and directed Antiviral.
In fact, Antiviral is a very modern, contemporary and youthful film about celebrity obsession, high technology and low impulses. It embodies both intellectual conceits and science-fiction horror elements. The protagonist (American musician-turned-actor Caleb Landry Jones) is a medical technician in a clinic. This future shock operation caters to people who buy injections of viral diseases "harvested" from celebrities, some dying. These fans are so wired into their idols they want to share their suffering.
Sickos? Well, yes, but Antiviral accepts these obsessions as a natural outcome of a celebrity-based culture. There is no moralizing. You can bring to the piece that yourself.
The clinic where Jones works is polished, a gleaming white nirvana. Meanwhile, Jones also smuggles the viruses out of the clinic inside his own body, selling them to pirates. Their hellish world is back-alley grunge. Yet clinics and pirates do precisely the same thing.
Set against that mind-blowing general narrative is a specific case. Jones himself is intrigued by a drop-dead gorgeous girl who is famous for physical perfection (Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, a candidate for future stardom). Paradoxically, Gadon has a life-threatening disease. That makes harvesting a sample of it even more desirable because super-fans such as Edward Porris (Douglas Smith) want to commune with her -- to death and beyond.
Other players in this weird scenario include a European doctor (Malcolm McDowell), a pirate (Edward Pingue), Jones' boss at the clinic (Nicholas Campbell) and his competitor (James Cade). The support players around Jones are impressive.
It is Jones and his conflicted character that are problematic. While Jones has many strong scenes early on, his slouched, disease-wracked, compulsive character becomes tedious in the final sequences. It may be logical for the story but it is tough to watch. That said, Cronenberg cut almost six minutes from the film since its debut at Cannes in May. Smart move. Antiviral flows more smoothly now.
Another bone to pick: I find the soundtrack from E.C. Woodley (one of Cronenberg's family relatives) just too loud and oppressive. The drone tones he uses may serve the piece but the music occasionally overwhelms the film ... and the audience.
On the other hand, Antiviral is beautifully designed and photographed. It is also imaginative, brimming with those penetrating ideas about celebrity culture. We cannot turn away.