The central conceit of Antiviral, the first feature from Brandon Cronenberg, David’s son, is a nifty one: Celebrity culture has reached such a nauseating apex that people are now paying to share the diseases and eat the putty-colored muscle cells of the rich and famous. Of course, true celebrity is global, but Cronenberg, who also scripted the film, confines us to the world of Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a salesman and expert researcher for a clinic that specializes in injecting people with the diseases of their idols. In effect, Cronenberg has crafted a wild, untamed world but here he refuses to leave the house.
This isn’t to say that Syd’s issues aren’t fascinating and involving. At the clinic, Syd’s best sellers come from the body of Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), who is constantly held up in some anonymous hotel room. Being both a technician and a scientist, Syd does a lot of experimenting at home on a homemade unit used to render the specific disease non-contagious; in other words, he patents the diseases. But this meddling is what causes him to contract the same disease that is killing Geist, which puts Syd on the hunt for a cure but also labels him, as one slick thug phrases it, a “commodity.”
It’s a marvelously caustic narrative invention, and it suggests a vast world of moral corrosion, to say nothing of the monumental shifts in medical ethics, technology, law, and public health that carve out this world. But Cronenberg seemingly has no interest in it, other than using it to discuss the corporate culture that comes with such outrageous advancements. Indeed, Cronenberg labors his film with the bureaucratic ins-and-outs and duplicitous backroom deals carried out by the clinics that do the injections, turning the whole thing into a kind of brooding espionage picture.
Densely plotted with betrayals, Antiviral highlights Cronenberg’s abilities as a writer far more than his visual acumen. Yes, the film sounds suspiciously like a project that might have surfaced in his father’s brasher days, but Cronenberg shows a distinct taste for alienation and moral weakness that are of his own, which helps forgive the practical effects that look yanked directly from his dad’s work with Rick Baker. His subject is messy, both morally and literally, and yet his direction renders the material near antiseptic, tidy and compact. That being said, the film offers a somber allegory for young Cronenberg’s first foray into feature filmmaking, as Syd ultimately abandons the company run by his paternalistic boss, only to find himself working for a similar company with a far more flexible set of ethics.
One of the film’s most memorable images is of a video advertisement starring a middle-aged woman, highlighting her potently red herpes sores, preaching the clinic’s work. It’s one of the few times we see the physical component of disease; most of the rest is left to our imagination completely. As a filmmaker, his interest remains largely focused on the effects of capitalism on the continued commodity of the self, taken to radical, physical lengths, but his viewpoint is of a complacent conspirator, a fellow obsessive only passive-aggressively agitated by the social and corporate climate that would allow for his satirical conceit. Syd’s would-be rebellion from this sick world is rendered toothless, largely because Cronenberg spends most of his film discussing how cool and complex the rules are, and how to break them.