Hypochondriacs should avoid “Antiviral” like, well, the plague. This creepy near-future-dystopia flick features enough coughing, sneezing, night sweats, bloody vomiting and gnarly sores to make even the jaded viewer feel like gargling and showering with antibacterial soap.
But as a squirm-inducing body horror film, it’s certainly effective, and it’s no surprise to find the name Cronenberg attached to it. This time though it’s Cronenberg fils, 33-year-old Brandon Cronenberg, the son of Canada’s most famous director. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, and that’s as true as ever with “Antiviral.”
Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee in “X-Men: First Class”) plays Syd March, a corporate salesman at The Lucas Clinic with a very unusual celebrity product on offer: viruses. Rabid fans of these near-future equivalents of the Kardashians or Justin Bieber can, for a price, have themselves infected with the exact same strand of common cold or herpes virus that their idol is afflicted by, harvested directly from the star. It’s a chance to feel “more connected” with the glitterati.
The clinic copy-protects its viruses to prevent transmission to anyone who hasn’t paid for the privilege, but Syd makes a little money on the side by sneaking a few out to sell on the black market. His method for getting the viruses past his employer’s tight security lockdown? Self-infection, shooting up in the toilet like a junkie, although his sickly demeanor would seem to be a giveaway.
When supermodel Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) comes down with a nasty new strand of something, Syd shoots up his bootleg copy, only to find himself getting desperately ill, and to learn that Hannah herself is near death. Viral analysis shows it to be a designer strand — someone deliberately infected Hannah, and hence somebody must have an antidote. Syd, his health failing rapidly, has only hours to find out who that might be.
Cronenberg has seen the future and it is all celebs, all the time. “Biological communion” is all the rage, with a less masochistic form involving eating celebrity cell steaks — gooey grey flesh grown in labs from actual celeb cell cultures (one of the film’s most gag-inducing scenes). When Syd’s boss (Nicholas Campbell) faces tough questioning from a self-righteous TV interviewer, he goes on about consenting adults, before getting a few lines that seem like the director’s manifesto: “Anyone who’s famous deserves to be famous. Celebrity is not an accomplishment, it’s a collaboration we choose to take part in. Celebrities aren’t people, they’re group hallucinations.”
The disease-for-sale concept is a bit of a stretch, but once past that hurdle, “Antiviral” arrives as a very controlled work, boasting clinical gleaming-white set design, a tension-inducing ambient electronic score and precise camerawork, utilizing a steady rhythm of static shots until Hannah’s virus kicks in on Syd, at which point some lurching handheld mayhem is used to good effect. The biggest downside is that Cronenberg displays his lineage a bit too much: The most glaring example is a scene where Syd is confronted with a giant TV-screen image of a masochistic Hannah speaking directly to him, which can’t help but evoke an almost identical scene between James Woods and Deborah Harry in 1983′s “Videodrome.” Meet the new flesh, same as the old.