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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 10.01.12] Canada horror drama

We have a new Trudeau in government, a new Cohen singing folk songs, and a new Cronenberg making body horror. Something sinister is going on in Canada. Perhaps a Boys from Brazil-style experiment designed to reproduce our 1970s icons? What's next, a new Shatner?!

Antiviral is the debut film by writer/director Brandon Cronenberg, and it's immediately obvious that he's a chip off the old block. Just check out this premise:

In an alternate reality, celebrities now sell their viruses to the celebrity-obsessed. Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) is a technician for The Lucas Clinic, a company that has an exclusive contract with uber-celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). But when Syd attempts to smuggle Hannah's latest virus by injecting it into himself, it's prognosis: terminal for our pasty ginger hero. Which means Caleb Landry Jones spends most of the runtime making the vein in his forehead pop out, writhing on the floor, vomiting blood, clenching his rail-thin body, and generally looking like the world's most constipated man.

Most science fiction films require a "big buy" of some sort, an element of the premise that demands suspension of disbelief. But this buy was just too big for me. I simply could not get past the inherent silliness of the concept. I find the realities of celebrity-obsession far more disturbing than anything in this movie, which goes beyond satire and into the realm of farce. Nobody would want this. OK, maybe a handful of weirdos, but I feel like I can comfortably say that no genuine market would exist for this service. Maybe I'm being too literal here, but at least I could see the draw of eXistenZ or the Videodrome. This celebrity virus experience would be too abstract, and objectively miserable. There is no appeal to being bedridden with your favorite celebrity's flu. No element of seduction. The people want sex tapes, paparazzi shots, gossip rags, clothing lines, Twitter feeds. Fans want to live vicariously through their celebrities, but I think even hardcore fans would draw the line somewhere. Apparently Justin Bieber vomited on stage this weekend. Did any 12-year old girls scramble up on stage to eat it?

Perhaps Antiviral would be easier to swallow if the premise had been sugar-coated a bit. But the world of the story is limited in scope, the production painfully stage-bound. Apparently there are only three celebrities in this alternate reality, all of them vaguely famous for appearing on blank white billboards. We're simply told that these celebrities are a big deal. They must be, as the fans actually pay big bucks to have a creepy lab technician inject herpes into their lip for the chance to share biological material. And if that's not enough, they can also purchase a Hannah Geist cell-steak and eat it (I found this idea more interesting than the main one), or buy a virtual Hannah Geist simulacrum and command her to reveal her deformed vulva (I found this idea more plausible than the main one). The Lucas Clinic encrypts its viruses by assigning warped Jacob's Ladder faces to them. Don't ask me how this process works, but it's described in a pseudo-scientific monologue. The offices of the Lucas Clinic are generically white, full of advertisements for themselves. Their security seems intense, until the plot requires it to disappear. Their sales pitch sounds about as appealing as voluntary water-boarding. I would probably pay for the Rekall Inc. experience, but The Lucas Clinic would skeeze me right out. The story is apparently taking place in 2011, according to a news ticker. I JUST DON'T BUY ANY OF THIS, BRANDON.

I won't permanently write off Cronenberg 2.0, however. Long live the new flesh, and all that. At least Antiviral has ideas, even if they are not quite fully formed. There are elements of SHIVERS that are crude and awkward, and yet David Cronenberg has had four decades of consistently interesting output since then. I feel bad even mentioning the elder Cronenberg, but it's almost impossible to avoid the reference. Brandon has done himself no favors by making a film his father might have made in an alternate reality, full of body horror and social commentary. There are even several Cronenberg alum in the cast, including Sarah Gadon and Nicholas Campbell. These decisions invite the comparison to a master. And Antiviral does in fact feel like a Cronenberg film, just not a particularly good one. Let's see what he comes up with next.

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JeffC (9 years ago) Reply

Wow. I'm so disappointed. Was looking forward to this.

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