PLOT: A dealer in celebrity viruses becomes infected with a new, manufactured disease and becomes the target of multiple shady businesses and collectors.
REVIEW: Like all ambitious science-fiction, ANTIVIRAL comes packed with a fantastic premise that requires your suspension of disbelief. It exists in a sterile future where celebrity-worship has become so out of control that people are willing to pay for the same viruses their favorite superstars have. Big Britney Spears fan? Maybe you'd like to share her herpes. More of a Jennifer Lawrence supporter? If she's got a bad cold, you can be infected with it; you’ll be all that much "closer" to your beloved actress.
This is a wild and creepy idea, and ANTIVIRAL, which was directed by Brandon "Son of David" Cronenberg, presents it as if it's the logical endgame for our insistent pop culture fascination and ridiculous reality TV enthusiasm. Are we so close to embracing the people we read about every day that we’d be willing to eat meat infused with their cells? Probably not, but on the stage of antiseptic sci-fi created by Cronenberg, it’s presented believably enough to get under your skin.
The film’s focus is on Syd March (a pale and strangely ominous Caleb Landry Jones), an employee for the Lucas Clinic, which sells injections of viruses harvested from celebrities. People will come to the Lucas Clinic to be stuck with a needle containing the latest strain of must-have sickness, like whatever it is ailing superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). This latest disease, which Syd has infected himself with, quickly becomes a must-have commodity; Lucas Clinic’s competitors wish to have it, as do black marketeers. But what the hell is it?
Cronenberg’s visual style is spare and sleek, a Kubrickian world of clean surfaces speckled with people carrying icky sores and hacking up bloody phlegm. The movie has a few gross moments, and the body horror element certainly recalls his dad’s earlier efforts, but for the most part Cronenberg carves out his own identity here, only going extremely surreal in a dream sequence where we see Syd transformed into something ghastly and at the film’s somber conclusion which features an ample amount of mutated flesh. There's certainly plenty to get unnerved about here, especially if the sight of the human body's fragility in visceral detail makes you queasy.
But ANTIVIRAL is much more interesting as a concept than as a feature film. Certainly, its mystery elements aren't all that engaging, mostly thanks to Syd's considerable dullness as a character. That's not to say that Jones doesn't play him well - indeed, he’s rather perfectly cast for Cronenberg’s chilly vision - but he’s neither likable nor sympathetic, and it’s hard to really care if he gets to the bottom of his investigation (or if he even lives). As the film’s final act slows to a crawl, the realization that Cronenberg has exhausted the possibilities of his idea becomes quite apparent. ANTIVIRAL might have worked better as a short film, where Cronenberg’s cynical message would have greater impact.