AntiViral is a dirty film. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. It’s unnerving. It’s not for the squeamish. And I mean that in a good way. It’s a fairly disturbing exploration of the public’s (and the media’s) relationship to celebrity, and the lengths to which people will go in order to insert themselves into the life of their idol or role model. It’s a vicious and sometimes unsettling look at what our attitude towards those people says about us as a society, imagining a world that sadly isn’t too far from the world as we know it. I think that might be the most disturbing facet of AntiViral. It’s not too far from where we are now.
AntiViral is set in a world where celebrity diseases are sold to the public in clinics, allowing them to share their idol’s “ordeal” and to viscerally fantasise about inserting themselves into their hero’s life. At one point, early in film, our lead character is preparing to infect a young man with a strain of herpes from a young star. He asks his client where he wants the infection – what side of his lip. “If she kissed you, it’s be on the left,” he tells his client, sealing the deal. The disease allows the kid to play into his own dark romantic fantasies, to suggest the fleeting contact with “greatness” – the notion that he exchanged siliva and viral cells with somebody “important.”
Obviously shot on a relatively low budget, AntiViral isn’t a film with too many science-fiction trappings. Characters eat at diners, and they live in familiar buildings. Alley ways look like alley ways and cars look like cars. The clinics stoe the viral smaples in the kind of fridges that we would see in a frat house or a form. There’s nothing to hi-tech or too surreal or too “out there.”The touches that distinguish this world from our own are relatively small, and understated.
That is, of course, part of the charm and the appeal. This isn’t an alternative world. This is just our world through a funhouse mirror, with the obsession over celebrity escalated by just the tiniest of fractions. A world of infra-red up-skirt photography isn’t too far removed from the content of current celebrity gossip websites. Worrying about the status of a given celebrity’s bodily orifices is only a step removed from the stuff that currently makes the news. Celebrities are treated like cattle in some sort of meat market, so the notion of “celebrity cell-steaks” just represents a literal expression of that concept.
“The celebrity isn’t a person,” the owner of one of these clinics argues. “It is a group hallucination.”It’s telling that we don’t discover how ore why any of the fictional celebrities featured here became house-hold names. In the first scene where our lead, Syd, encounters the celebrity he dreams about, she doesn’t speak – they don’t directly interact. It’s presented as the most intimate and sacred of moments, and she doesn’t even need to be aware of his presence.
There’s an irony inherent in AntiViral, and a nice one at that. There is some debate as to whether or not a virus can truly be considered “alive.” However, in the world of AntiViral, they more likely to be treated as a living organism than their host. Rendered non-contagious as a method of “copy protection”, each virus is given a “face” in order to make it easily identify it. There’s a clear attempt to humanise the disease while dehumanising the celebrities they infect. While the character in the film treat celebrities as commodities to be bought and sold, even one celebrity’s doctor – Dr. Abendroth – considers the virus to be a living thing. “There he is,” he comments on identifying one strain.
However, AntiViral is most fascinating in the way that it explore the relationship between celebrities and the public consuming this constant stream of gossip nonsense. The movie is quick to portray it as a sexual act. Syd’s fantasy involves breaking her skin, in loving slow motion, with a syringe. However, that sexual element is immediately linked with consumption – the notion that people don’t really want to engage or interact with celebrity. People want to take from them, they want to literally consume.
The syringe penetrates, but it also draws blood. Syd’s ultimate intimate sexual fantasy also involved penetration and consumption. We discover that the latest sexual fad is a virtual reality approximation of the celebrity pleading to debase themselves in front of their public. “Do you want me to hurt myself?” the computer program coos. You could argue that that’s exactly what society expects from its celebrities, demanding that they debase and demean themselves in front of their adoring public.
The body horror elements of AntiViral are great, perfectly complementing the world-building that goes on around them. Brandon Cronenberg makes the human body a revolting thing. This is obvious during Syd’s rather vivid dream sequences, but also even in the way that Cronenberg portrays infection and contamination. Understandably, it’s disgusting – but it’s meant to be disgusting. The make-up and the special effects work is absolutely superb, and there are several very uncomfortable sequences.
I always feel a tang of guilt comparing a young artist to their parent. It always seems like an easy go-to comparison to suggest that there’s some sort of familial link, whether in the quality of the work or its thematic content. Brandon Cronenberg is the son of David Cronenberg, arguably the king of what has become known as “body horror.” His rich body of work includes mainstream crossover hits like The Fly, but also a wealth of cult classics like Videodrome and The Naked Lunch. So it feels inevitable that any major body horror film would use David Cronenberg as a benchmark. Brandon Cronenberg proves just as adept at making the human body seem distinctly and disturbingly unpleasant.
The film does have its flaws though. While the world it inhabits is well-drawn, and the central themes are well-observed and astute, the plot itself occasionally becomes a little bit convoluted as it tries to hit all the requisite notes. Cronenberg finds the movie zipping around, with some connections a bit hazy, while it’s easy enough to occasionally lose track of who the players are and their relationship to one another. The movie stays on point quite well at the start and at the end, but the middle suffers a bit from being this big conspiracy thriller that insists on twisting an turning.
The other problem facing the film is Caleb Landry Jones. Jones is a solid actor. He works very well from about a third of the way into the film, the point where Syd seems like he’s desperately trying to stay alive in a game he doesn’t fully understand. The audience believes Jones as a quick-thinking and manipulative young go-getter. The problem is that the start of the movie asks us to accept Syd as a salesman.
Syd is given these monologues trying to sell these illnesses that really require a charisma that Jones just hasn’t developed yet. He seems creepy rather than convincing. You could argue that the customers are meant to be oblivious to the rather creepy delivery, so entranced by their celebrity of choice, but everybody in the business seems to love and respect Syd, even when it becomes clear that there are internal problems. The way that Jones plays Syd, it’s hard to believe that he’s not the prime suspect once things start going wrong – instead, everybody seems to trust him implicitly. Jones just doesn’t convince as that young corporate rising star, and certainly not as much as he does playing the self-interested manipulator trying to stay alive.
Still, AntiViral is a fascinating piece of work. Jones might not have been the ideal leading man, and it could have done with a bit of tightening up, but it’s smart and thoughtful enough to merit a viewing.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Antiseptic, AntiViral, Antiviral drug, Brandon Cronenberg, Brood, Caleb Landry Jones, Cosmopolis, Dangerous Method, david cronenberg, film, HIV, Movie, Naked Lunch, non-review review, People, Rabid, review, RNA, Syd, University of Leeds, Videodrome