“Celebrities aren’t human. They’re group hallucinations.”
Like father, like son—Brandon Cronenberg has been paying attention. Even though a credit as Special Effects Technician on eXistenZ is the only one of David’s films he’s attached to in a professional capacity, it would be hard to believe he wasn’t at least on set for a few others. And if watching Brandon’s debut feature length Antiviral conjured memories of that virtual reality reality flick alongside a taste of Videodrome like it did to me, you know the body horror gene was passed down. It’s a good thing too because while Cronenberg senior has excelled at diving into more eclectic subject matter this past decade, I’ve missed his predilection for bringing bodily harm to extreme distortion and pseudo-eroticism. Knowing his son may willingly pick up where he left off is a good sign for the future.
Well, cinematically at least because our future unfortunately looks as bleak as the one Brandon depicts. Housewives and impressionable teens/co-eds yearn to live vicariously through celebrity idiots possessed by no real worth besides being born without the ability to get embarrassed. There was a time where fame equated to talent; where we adored the pretty people because they could do something we couldn’t. Whether is was playing an instrument, writing and singing powerful lyrics, or transforming one’s self on screen into whatever character deemed challenging enough to portray, we loved them because they were unique. Today, however, celebrity has become a commodity given value before the person anointed has proven they have any. All that’s necessary to earn a magazine cover is a willingness to be a fool and show some skin in the process.
Antiviral’s warped social consciousness is therefore a logical if not inevitable evolution. We’ve already passed unhealthy disorders and diets ravaging our immune systems to reach a standard no human should with the horror of plastic surgery to look like a Barbie—minus genitalia removal, I hope—and we still want more. Looking like them isn’t enough. So we bid millions of dollars on game-worn jerseys and set costumes in hopes the fabric retains a DNA sample in a strand of hair, fleck of dead skin, or patch of dried saliva. We bask in the glow of autographs signed without an ounce of passion as they pocket our (their stalker’s) hard-earned cash. And we clamor for a hundred dollar photo to prove we stood next to a one-hit wonder, high school dropout.
Rather than finally awakening from the disgusting cesspool of idolatry without cause at this point, however, Cronenberg shows the truth. We’ll never be satisfied and the depths we’ll go are terrifying. His is a world of stark, clinical precision masking the dark alleys populated by celebrity junkies willing to give anything for a taste. And when I say taste I’m not being cute. These malicious, greedy, jealous hoards line up at the butcher shop for cloned steaks cultivated from their heroes’ cells. You can’t get the gorgeous Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) to visit your bedroom to kiss and taste her skin? Simply come down to the corner store and do one better by literally ingesting her flesh. And when even that’s not enough, why not expose yourself to a virus she herself once had coursing through her veins?
Herein lies the Lucas Clinic’s appeal. Buyers of their famous clients’ illnesses, they provide customers with the most intimate of connections. From their blood to yours, it’s as though you were close enough to catch it. Suffice it to say these strains almost become bigger commodities than the celebrities themselves and thus fetch a fine price on the black market. Encoded by a state-of-the-art faux facial recognition manipulation process, only the virus’ engineer can decrypt the watermark for public consumption. This is why Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) injects himself with everything he sells, deals with the pain at night, and reverts its structure back to its original form via a stolen encrypting machine from work. It’s also why he couldn’t resist the opportunity to steal the illness killing Geist straight from her veins.
Cronenberg’s film anxiously delves into the social commentary at its heart as what began as a world building experience to introduce its brand new, legal designer drug quickly turns into the underhanded greedy war for power and wealth any malignant yet popular product has at its back. Syd’s fiscal reasoning for thievery transforms into a potential yearning for fame’s touch as we realize the unnecessary risk he takes. Despite his manipulations and canned sales pitches, his sanctimonious sneer hides a similarity to the nameless souls he peddles pain. Now caught with the holy grail of viruses he unwittingly steps into an uncontrollable situation. Wanted by Geist’s doctor (Malcom McDowell) to find a cure, Lucas’ competitor to learn about Hannah’s final days, and his black market buddy (Joe Pingue) to get rich, Syd becomes the biggest celebrity the world never knew.
Beautifully art directed so its deep blood red contrasts the unblemished whitewashed scenery, Antiviral is itself a pristine façade infected by a dirty lust for control. Computer chipped vials of biologic fluids, nightmares of flesh suspended and fused to giant tubing, virtual screens of celebrities held captive against their will—Cronenberg’s dystopia is filled by technological horrors. Add the menacing, reptilian slithering of Jones—so vicious it makes you fear his emaciated form more than the men chasing him—and you have a wealth of unshakable imagery. While kindly old women sit in supermodel-collaged rooms tearfully mourning the passing of someone they never knew, a newly minted sex symbol arrives to take the deceased’s place. It’s a world of hidden agendas and puppetmasters toying with society’s malleable naivety where everything and everyone is expendable on their journey to ultimate power.
courtesy of IFC Films