“Antiviral” is a film that spreads like a virus. We see our main character, Sid March (Caleb Landry Jones) on his long downward spiral, doing his dance with death, almost all at first glance. We know he’s sick. We even know he’s doomed. All from our first view of him, up there on a rooftop, the billboard staring down at him, promising the impossible.
That is what Sid March peddles, the impossible. In a society that has nosedived into complete and total obsession with celebrity, Sid’s employer, the Lucas Clinic, offers its clients an opportunity to be closer to their obscure object of desire. For a fee, anyone can literally own a piece of a superstar. They can own the same virus inhabiting the body of that superstar. They can experience the same sweet pain: the fever, the convulsions, the bleeding. This is what turns society on in the future and Sid March is at the forefront. The only problem is that perhaps the dealer has gotten too close to the poison he sells.
Caleb Landry Jones knows how to command the screen with just a stare or a sigh. He reminds one of Tilda Swinton when she first came onto the scene. He has those same arresting features and attitude. “Antiviral,” to some degree, even brings to mind Swinton’s breakout role in 2002’s “Teknolust,” which revolves around human folly with human genetic modification. In the case of “Antiviral,” the comedic breaks are in the service of an even darker and juicier satire. You even have Malcolm McDowell in this, for crying out loud! Oh, yes, the tension runs through like a high fever. It is a very consistent vision that writer and director, Brandon Cronenberg, maintains to great effect.
As Cronenberg points out, this obsession with celebrity is not new. Just consider the worship of a finger bone from a saint. That doesn’t make it any healthier, of course. Today it’s not saints. It’s the products from the entertainment industry. Cronenberg’s theme is about “the mania that drives that industry.” In an interesting scene early on in the movie, the director of the Lucas Clinic, Dorian (Nicholas Campbell), is asked by a reporter to answer allegations that he is contributing to a mental sickness by providing a means for clients to contract a celebrity’s sickness. He states what Cronenberg has said himself, “Celebrities are not people. They’re a group hallucination.”
The mania is totally out of control. People’s desire of celebrity knows no limits. Prime cuts of human beef grown from celebrity cells are the norm. Given an insatiable desire, a black market is sure to follow. Syd sealed his fate long ago when he decided to traffic in celebrity product stolen from his employer. Couple that with his own celebrity obsession, and it is clear that Syd’s future is far from bright. And you just can’t continue to transport human viruses inside your own body without some really weird and tragic consequences.
The fact that celebrities are not real people, but an impossible ideal, is the real topic up for discussion in this film. It’s about humans entrenched in a belief beyond human. And we see this played out on an often stark, clinical white, backdrop, only relieved by the close-up of the goddess. In this case, it is one Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) who is described over and over again as perfectly beautiful beyond human terms. We see the real flesh and blood Hannah Geist for brief intervals. She is human, vulnerable, all too human. But even when confronted with the real live Hannah Geist, all some can see is the ideal. Like Marilyn Monroe, the celebrity will endure and can fully manifest itself once it’s done away with its human shell.
“Antiviral” is an engaging mix of horror, thriller, and sci-fi, sharing a sensibility with the filmmaker’s father’s work, David Cronenberg. It is fortunate for us and a sign of great works to come from this young filmmaker.
IFC Midnight will release ANTIVIRAL theatrically at The IFC Center and on VOD April 12th 2013.