It's always hard for children of titanic fathers to step out of the shadows of their legacies. Some children make dramatic breaks--Duncan Jones, for instance, is making movies that don't resemble anything Bowie in the least. Some children carry on the family business: Arlo Guthrie, for instance, or Sophia Coppola. This is the path chosen by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, whose debut feature, Antiviral (2012) is exactly the sort of psychoplasmic nightmare with which his father once made his name. Like those films, this is intellectual, distant, clinical, and creepy as all get out.
Antiviral postulates a future in which celebrity culture has evolved to a point where fans so crave communion with their idols that they'll deliberately infect themselves with diseases that have been carried by the objects of their obsessions. Providing this experience is big business, and companies like Lucas Clinics will provide this experience to you for a price. Syd March works for Lucas, selling diseases to fans. He also runs a black market celebrity disease concession, with a stolen analyzer to break the copy protection that the big companies code into their viruses. If he gets caught, he’ll be fired or worse. He traffics his illicit wares through Arvid, a butcher who specializes in meats grown from the muscle cells of celebrities. The biggest name handled by Lucas Clinics is Hannah Geist, an ethereally beautiful model whose illnesses are exclusive to Lucas. Other outfits would love to get their hands on her fan base. When the usual technician who draws diseases from Hannah is fired, Syd gets the call. It’s an opportunity: Syd injects himself with some of Hannah’s illness as a means of incubating it for sale, without knowing that Hannah has been targeted for assassination and the weapon is a designer virus. Syd has stumbled into a conspiracy and has to figure out who the enemy is before the virus kills him.
Antiviral is a film for all of those people who lament the fact that the elder Cronenberg has largely abandoned the body horror films of his youth. This film follows the form of those movies to a T (cell). You get a fascination with disease, with the possibilities of growing new types of flesh, a paranoid and dismal near future in which bodies are battlegrounds for shadowy conspiracies and sinister biotech companies, and a satire of mass media and celebrity culture. This is the world of Videodrome and Scanners, or at least it’s a world that’s next door to those movies. Like those films, this one is profoundly weird and eerily plausible at the same time.
Visually, this is a cold movie. Its scenes in clinics are designed like they’re set in an autoclave, with blinding white backgrounds decorated with giant photos of celebrities placed like patron deities in temples of worship. Outside of the clinics is a world in decay, with grotty spaces where grubby men do the bidding of their corporate or underworld masters. In this kind of world, no wonder people lose themselves in the fantasy of celebrity. All Syd’s landlady can talk about is the celebrity news of the day. And Syd isn’t immune to this. Sure, Hannah Geist is a client and a provider for his job, but Syd is also a devoted fan, a character trait that turns him from opportunist to knight errant and makes him endure the horrors imposed upon him by his rivals. It makes the very end of the film, ghastly though it is, seem moving and loving.
The anchor for all of this is the performance by Caleb Landry Jones, whose rawboned face and red hair are unconventional, androgynous, and stoic. His is a quiet, inward-focused performance; his predicament doesn’t result in raging against the world so much as it results in internalized rage. His main foil is Joe Pingue as Arvid the Butcher, who is amiable to a fault even when he’s cutting your throat. The most familiar face in the cast—thanks in part to the elder Cronenberg, who used her in his last two movies—is Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist, elfin and glacial even as her body breaks down.
As a matter of form, Antiviral departs only a little from the work of Brandon Cronenberg’s father. This film is more prone to use exaggerated depth of field compositions and slow motion to communicate its moods, but it has the same feel for the kinds of spaces that win design awards but seem hostile to human life. They provide a stark background against which too-intelligent people spill their viscera. In one other respect, this is the work of an apple that didn’t fall far from its tree: at the end of the film, I found myself wondering just what the hell it was that I had just watched.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 6
First Time Viewings: 6
Around the Web:
Kevin at For It Is Man's Number finds Battledogs to be horrible filmmaking but surprisingly enjoyable.
She's not doing the challenge per se, but friend of the blog and all around awesome writer Stacia Jones at She Blogged By Night posted A Very Brief History of a Very Famous Mask this morning and you all should go read it.