Antiviral, the debut feature-length film from director Brandon Cronenburg, is nothing short of ghoulish. This is meant to be a compliment, because the subject matter with which it concerns itself, obsession with celebrity, tends to all-too-naturally tread into morbid territory. Anyone who has ever been fascinated by the decline of a celebrity can attest to the strange pull of that culture, giving the premise a valid playing field for this attempt at slick, sci-fi influenced horror-satire.
Working with this subject material, Cronenburg places us in a near-future society where celebrity culture has reached its extreme. Protagonist Syd March (played by Caleb Landry Jones, who you may recognize as Banshee from X-Men: First Class) works for a company which supplies celebrity diseases to fans who want to feel a little, um, closer to their object of fascination. If that sounds outlandish, keep in mind that, in this world, people buy and eat meat grown from celebrity cell tissue.
Syd is not, himself, immune to celebrity fixation, and it’s from this point that the story unfolds. With the decline of Syd’s health, the audience is treated to the spectacle of his monstrous transformation. The second act is almost entirely comprised of people vomiting blood artistically, and the plot loses itself, here, even while providing a plethora of twists. We’re never fully invested in the story, which is a shame, considering how many interesting ways the premise could be explored.
The science is loose in the sci-fi elements, and the horror is tight. The major motifs in the film are needles and blood, and for the queasy, this is successfully (and more than sufficiently) horrific. Where the movie fails is in relying too heavily on concept alone, often sacrificing story for style. The shots are beautiful, haunting, and dystopic looking, but the audience is never given enough information as to why celebrity obsession has reached this apex in the first place. Certainly, there is real-life precedent for the purchase of celebrity biological material (Shatner’s gallstone, anyone?), but this attempt at satire would have much more success if any sympathy whatsoever was gained for the protagonist. Essentially, we would be able to see ourselves in the film if the film actually reflected anyone or anything beyond the notion that “celebrity obsession is strange”.
The tensions between the ghoulish subject matter and the sharp, clean visuals are interesting, to be sure, and the film will find fans in those seeking art house horror. If you’re looking for stylish gore, you’ve come to the right place, but if you’re a horror/sci-fi fan looking for more, you’ll probably be left wanting. Antiviral is, unfortunately, far more focused on form than content.