When I’m in the checkout line at the supermarket, and I see all of the celebrity magazines, I’m confused. People who would buy those magazines and tabloids don’t seem to realize that celebrities are strangers. If Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a baby, then I don’t see how that impacts anyone’s lives but their own. But celebrities are viewed as a commodity, and Brandon Cronenberg‘s clever film Antiviral carries out this extension of human commodity into a perverse economy where there’s just enough shreds of truth to make us wonder if his world could really happen if the science was possible. However, despite the fascinating ideas at the forefront, the story and characters almost feel perfunctory, and any attempts to make the movie feel like a thriller come off as heavy-handed. Cronenberg has crafted a film that is sick, sad, smart, and serviceable.
Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman for The Lucas Clinic, a company that harvests diseases from celebrities, and gives those diseases to customers who want to be even closer to those celebrities. You can’t kiss Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), but you can get her herpes infection. Because the diseases are a commodity, it means they have black market value, and Syd steals and bootlegs the proprietary diseases (they’ve been modified to prevent contagion) to sell to a vendor who injects the celebrity cells into meat for human consumption. Syd, who steals by injecting himself with viruses, eventually lands one of Hannah’s strains that’s far more dangerous and more valuable than any regular disease. Ailing from his stolen “merchandise”, he’s put on the run from nefarious factions that want his blood.
There are some really rich ideas swirling around in Antiviral that get under your skin when it comes to what celebrities mean to our culture, and why they’re so valuable. When he’s selling to the clients, Syd always remarks on how Hannah isn’t just perfect; she’s beyond perfect. The film is constantly probing the sick obsessions with celebrities, and Cronenberg doesn’t mind being overbearing to make his audience consider the larger issues in play. The striking visuals go beyond the gore (although if you’re creeped out by needles, you may want to avoid this flick). Rooms are plastered with oversized images of celebrities. Syd’s home and the Lucas Clinic are a sterile white, which helps provide contrast to the sickness within.
The visuals serve the themes, but they become too much when trying to boost the energy of the story. Antiviral never quite taps into the paranoia or dread surrounding Syd’s situation. The movie occasionally brushes up against the darkly comic, but it never generates any emotions for Syd or the people around him. His arc is muddled, and it becomes redundant as he’s constantly victimized by people in the same disturbing profession.
Yet Cronenberg does everything in his power to enhance the drama. The movie doesn’t have music; it has loud, single notes. It has a captivating performance by Jones, who is perfectly cast as someone who looks ill even when he’s physically healthy. However, we never feel any sympathy for Syd even though Jones turns him into a pitiable creature. Cronenberg’s visuals may captivate when illustrating the film’s larger themes, but they feel like a shortcut when they’re trying to energize the plot.
Antiviral breathes by sucking in the sickly air of our creepy celebrity culture. It has fun, twisted ideas such as a machine that shows off deformed faces to represent what the virus would look like if the virus had a face. Naturally, the virus is almost a mirror staring back at the corroded souls of people so pathetic that they need to feel close to celebrities in any way possible. They’re already sick in the head, so they may as well be sick in the body. Blood may ooze from orifices and flop sweat may be ever-present, but there’s nothing so emotionally disgusting as the craven pursuit of “perfect” celebrity.
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