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
Sunday 03 February 2013
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.
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.
After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violencefilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 Kajieme Powell: Missouri police release video footage of second man killed by officers
- 4 Paul Scholes: Manchester United need five experienced players who can turn round a desperate situation
- 5 James Foley 'beheading': Met police warn public watching murder video could be criminal offence
Laughs go global as Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran bring international comedians to the Edinburgh Fringe
The Top Ten: Horrible buildings
JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing 'Singing Sorceress' Celestina Warbuck
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Celebrity Big Brother 2014 line-up: Meet the contestants from Lauren Goodger to Kellie Maloney and Audley Harrison
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Scottish Independence Referendum: Salmond described as 'arrogant, ambitious and dishonest' by Scottish women