Sunday, November 11, 2012


If nothing else, Brandon Cronenberg has been quite unafraid to make a film that could pass for an earlier one of his father’s. It may even be a way of getting attention. Antiviral boasts a fertile premise that ties biological interference to celebrity obsession, is very handsomely mounted, and features a committed performance from Caleb Landry Jones in the lead. But the title rings hollow as an antidote to the modern woes depicted on screen, or as representative of any of the characters’ actions or motivations. Like the film itself, it’s catchy, but little more than superficially thought-provoking.

The potentially satirical elements are presented as caricature, rather than as prophesy or caution. In a classy, sterile white clinic, Syd Marsh is some sort of technician involved in the (big) business of infecting fans with viruses purchased direct from the bodies of their favorite celebrities, a form of biological communion (it’ll be a good weekend if the fever comes on in time). Billboards, posters, and video screens depicting luminous celeb Hannah Geist proliferate (famous for what? It’s not important); TV sets are permanently tuned to the hyperbolically invasive entertainment news; and one can even go to the butcher’s shop to purchase Hannah Geist steaks, amongst others, grown directly from the celebrities’ muscle cells.

This is all deftly set up, as a not-too alternate and all-too-believable version of our present culture, and once established, is no longer of any great concern – a caricature is a sketch with little depth after all, and nor is the title an indication of opposition to the world depicted in the film, half in love as it is, and entirely resigned. The substance of the film is an intrigue of industrial espionage: Marsh, for reasons that are never entirely clear, infects himself with celebrity viruses, and when he shoots up a particularly nasty one from Geist, various other parties are keen to get their hands on it. Malcolm McDowell turns up as an avuncular doctor; Marsh is beaten, kidnapped, escapes. The “bad guys” get what they want, which doesn’t seem to matter much in a world already so debased by celebrity worship, and Marsh we must conclude is some sort of über-fan of la Geist, too nutty to earn our identification.

As this sort of thriller with a provocative backdrop, the film works reasonably well, despite a tendency to repetition and semi-lyrical longueurs. It’s finely shot by Karim Hussein, with frequently arresting framing and a profusion of queasy injection close-ups. The production design is classy, with some fun gizmos: the complex machine that analyses blood throws up on a video console the “face” of the virus, in the form of a distorted human visage à la Francis Bacon; and there’s some suitably goopy bio-engineering projects that culminate in a truly eerie specimen.

This particular creation is the subject of (rather over-milked) vampirism, and in the final moment of the film, it is brought clearly to our attention how under-exploited the premise has been. The created world rings true, but one longs for some of father Cronenberg's obsessiveness and genuine horror at the biological modifications taking place. Instead, engagement is kept at a distance (again, a symptom of caricature) and Marsh’s motivations are kept obscure – is he, for example, a particular fan of Geist, or has he flipped for the whole process of shooting up celebrity illness? Why does he keep walking through an oppressive room of flowers to a woman either sleeping or dead? Why does he keep a face console in his wardrobe? To the last, for some unspecified black market activity; the flower room is a sort of fantasy prediction of his meeting with Geist; and the first distinction is never made. The psychology of either state is firmly ignored, but we do at least get a fantastically physical performance from Jones, a pasty ginger with a hint of the young Jared Harris about his protruding upper lip, who looks really unwell with great enthusiasm. Would that he had been given material enough for an inner life.

d/sc Brandon Cronenberg p Niv Fichman ph Karim Hussein ed Matthew Hannam pd Arvinder Grewal m E.C. Woodley  cast Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gaddon, Joe Pingue, Malcolm McDowell, Nicholas Campbell,James Cade
(2012, Can/USA, 108m)
posted by tom newth at

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