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

It's all about the State of the American Conscience right now. Daniel Day-Lewis is Lincoln in Spielberg's imposing, and very wordy, drama about the end of slavery. And Jessica Chastain is on the trail of Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's controversial, ambivalent Zero Dark Thirty.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor