Antiviral is set in an alternate universe, where celebrities have been reduced to the diseases harvested from their bodies, and fandom has gone to the disturbing extreme of everyday people going to specialized clinics and paying good money to intentionally be injected with those diseases. It might seem like an intriguing premise, except that it raises more questions than it answers. It’s never explained, for example, why it is that so many celebrities are harboring such a vast array of diseases during the same stretch of time, nor is it explained why any of them would be willing to actually have their diseases harvested and sold, if that is indeed the case. Why is it that celebrities are getting ill through sheer happenstance, while everyday people have to be injected in order to become ill? Presumably, whatever can be caught by a celebrity can also be caught by any other person at any time.
Furthermore, there’s no discussion regarding the separation of lethal and nonlethal viruses. Do these clinics only make deals with celebrities that aren’t terminally ill? I imagine that, if this alternate universe were a reality, a vast majority of the paying clients would end up dead – unless they’ve been injected so many times with so many diseases that they’re basically becoming immune to everything, a possibility that was also overlooked by the filmmakers. Consider the main character, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a technician for a celebrity virus clinic; as a way to make extra money, he discretely injects himself with all the diseases acquired by his company, smuggles them out of the office in his body, and sells them on the black market by having samples of his blood extracted. After doing this for a length of time, which it appears he has been, wouldn’t it stand to reason that his immune system would be superhumanly strong?
The problem here is fundamental: Rather than work through the logistics and flesh out the story, first-time writer/director Brandon Cronenberg made his film with nothing but a skeletal premise. Its only real asset is the visceral, stomach-churning influence of filmmaker David Cronenberg, Brandon’s father, and even then, it will be appreciated only by a select few. The younger Cronenberg shows a healthy interest in cringe-inducing visuals of bodily violations – extreme close-ups of needles penetrating the skin, test tubes being filled with blood, blood being vomited up and smeared all over the floors and walls, and even a moment when the March character does his best to imitate a vampire. There’s even a thoroughly unsettling new trend in meat, what one character calls “celebrity cell steaks”; somehow, cells from the diseased celebrities are harvested, cloned, and formed into slabs of whitish flesh that are consumed by the paying masses.
The science behind the steaks and the obtaining of diseases could have passed as plausible had it not been obscured by passages of ludicrous medical jargon and indecipherable technobabble. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the viruses are somehow altered so that they cannot be replicated by rival companies, nor do I understand how a disease-ridden vial of blood can be hooked up to a machine and project a grotesquely distorted image of the infected celebrity’s face onto a screen, in essence giving a face to the disease itself. If the intention was to make more than a shocking body-horror film, if Cronenberg was making a commentary about celebrity culture and fandom, it’s unlikely to be noticed. How can it be? There are enough holes in the plot to put Swiss cheese to shame.
The plot, such as it is, involves a beloved actress named Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), who’s seen mostly as a series of prerecorded images on gigantic video screens. Because of her stature, her diseases are much sought after and outsell the entire catalogue of March’s company, the Lucas Clinic. The news reports that Geist dies of an unknown disease. Unfortunately, March injects himself with the disease before hearing the news; he will spend the rest of the film being sought after by various shady factions looking to turn a profit, while at the same time trying to solve the mystery of who infected her and succumbing to the physical effects of the disease. Indeed, he will cough up and spread around so much blood that it looks as if his body is literally losing cohesion. Cronenberg’s proclivity for clean white surfaces comes into play, since the purity of white can so easily be corrupted, especially during the last act of the film.
Syd March is an exceedingly odd role, and Jones has the unconventional looks it requires – the lanky build, the pale skin dotted with freckles, the long, unkempt ginger hair that repeatedly falls into his eyes. In spite of this, his presence isn’t all that compelling, in large part because he delivers much of his dialogue in low, breathy monotones that are sometimes difficult to hear. He was directed to be creepy when he should have been directed to perform. In all fairness, no amount of performing would have redeemed the story, which was deeply flawed even at the conceptual level. It doesn’t help that, even at a reasonable running time of 103 minutes, Antiviral is unbearably slow-paced. Specific scenes are so lacking in energy, it’s almost as if the actors were just getting over a genuine illness. Here’s hoping they didn’t contract it intentionally.
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