Jonathan Romney on Antiviral: It's in the blood... Brandon's creepy celebrity satire is Cronenberg to its core

Dir: Brandon Cronenberg, 108 mins, 15

This week, I'm reviewing the new Cronenberg. Brandon Cronenberg, that is – the son of erstwhile "body horror" maestro David. Brandon's debut feature Antiviral is nothing if not Cronenbergian – so strikingly in the maestro's lineage that you'd think young Brandon hadn't sprung from Dad's loins but had rather been grown in a Petri dish from the parental DNA. Cronenberg Sr has now, of course, moved on from the grisly fantasias that made him famous, to more sober undertakings such as the recent Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis. Watching Antiviral, you imagine David presenting his heir with the key to his special-effects room, stacked with prosthetic alien limbs and latex mutant flesh: "Son, all this is yours now – I'm going upmarket."

If Brandon had been fired by the spirit of oedipal rebellion, he might have made a Katherine Heigl rom-com. But then, he probably spent every family breakfast of his life absorbing chit-chat about gene splicing and gynaecological anomalies. At any rate, Antiviral matches a strong idea with a strong style, showing that Brandon Cronenberg is rather more than the cinematic equivalent of Julian Lennon. The story is set in a society that, like ours, is morbidly fixated on celebrities. Protagonist Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) works in the modish Lucas Clinic, where clients pay to be injected with illnesses that their favourite stars have recently suffered. Particularly in demand is "biological communion" with enigmatically smiling Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, from Cosmopolis). Is Hannah a singer, an actress, a model? It doesn't matter – she's a celeb, which means everything. As the clinic head comments: "Celebrities are not people, they're group hallucinations."

That's the sharpest observation in a film which sometimes comes across as a Cultural Studies satire. But Antiviral is acute on the way that star worship fluctuates between the ideal and the obsessively physical. Pitching to an awed client, Syd calls Hannah "more than perfect, more than human … her eyes seem to reach beneath your skin and touch your organs." Meanwhile, fans are obsessed with the mysteries of their idols' own organs: TV shows breathlessly screen celebrity rectal scans.

But Syd is secretly injecting himself with the viruses, to sell them on to black market traders. As a result, Jones's creepy character, who starts off looking peaky at best, is soon shivering, bleach-white, and permanently on the verge of throwing up: looking, in fact, as if he's just emerged from a Cronenberg all-nighter.

The thriller narrative – all conspiracies, rival factions and double bluffs – doesn't hold up, and drags the second half down badly. And Cronenberg could have used a good co-writer: the nadir comes when an enigmatic doctor tells Syd, "I'm afraid you've become involved in something sinister." Which, given that the doc is played by Malcolm McDowell, is a point that hardly needed making.

Another problem is that Antiviral crams in too many ideas. Apart from the virus trade, there's a cannibal theme – synthetic meat generated from stars' bodies ("celebrity cell steaks", yum), available at your local deli. And Cronenberg proposes the intriguing but underdeveloped notion that viruses have their own profiles resembling the human face, so that each vial in the Lucas lab bears a mugshot resembling a Francis Bacon soul in torment.

Antiviral is best approached as a poker-faced black comedy, or as a Canadian art film par excellence. The dominant look is frostily chic; Karim Hussain's glacial photography lingers on white lobbies, white tiles, white sheets, all the better to show up the gore and grot.

The result is a tantalising near-miss, and you think Cronenberg has dropped the ball – until he picks it up again with an ending that's at once surreal, poignant and breathtakingly macabre. It's no surprise that Brandon Cronenberg has morbid weirdness in his genes – but just how individual a mutation that is remains to be seen.

Critic's choice

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