Possibly setting a record for most images of needles piercing human skin in a motion picture, Brandon Cronenberg’s syringe-tastic “Antiviral” suggests the fledgling filmmaker has some corporeal-horror preoccupations in common with famous dad David. Set in an icy near-future where celebrities’ diseases are sold like crack vials, this creepy speculative satire tends to hit the same notes in its dissection of seriously unhealthy celebrity obsession, but exerts a queasy fascination regardless. Overlong Canadian production may prove too clinically distanced for gorehounds and too yucky for specialty auds, though the Cronenberg imprimatur is sure to stir theatrical interest.
Inspired by a particularly nasty case of the flu he came down with in film school, Cronenberg hit upon the ingeniously out-there concept of a free market for famous people’s germs. As an indictment of a star-struck population already addicted to celebrity Twitter feeds and sex tapes, the message couldn’t be plainer or more literal: Our media-obsessed culture is seriously sick.
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The viewer’s guide to this distasteful world of corporatized disease exchange is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones, “X-Men: First Class”), an employee at the white-walled Lucas Clinic, where customers pay large sums to be infected with, say, a herpes simplex virus harvested from the latest hot young starlet. In order to maintain a competitive edge, the Lucas Clinic practices its own form of copy protection, altering each specimen to be non-contagious. Syd, however, has found a secret way around these measures and runs a black-market sideline in live viruses, which he smuggles out of HQ in his own body. For him, catching someone else’s cold isn’t an occupational hazard but a daily necessity.
But the operation backfires when he injects himself with a rare specimen extracted from celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). The disease takes hold far too quickly, and when news breaks of Hannah’s untimely death, Syd realizes he has only a little time left, during which he is continually ambushed by rivals and collectors who covet his fatal affliction, never mind that it causes him to develop unsightly lesions and vomit chocolate-colored blood all over Arvinder Grewal’s chillingly sterile production design.
Gradually establishing its ground rules in deadpan fashion, the script eventually reveals, consciously or not, a certain structural resemblance to the elder Cronenberg’s “Videodrome.” Like that prescient 1983 splatter classic, “Antiviral” takes aim at an industry equipped to service ever baser and more twisted human needs, bringing down the system through the violent rebellion of a disgruntled, self-contaminated drone. The perpetually scowling Jones isn’t the most charismatic protagonist here and doesn’t need to be; no one in this pathetic simulacrum of the future is worth rooting for or emulating.
Whatever creative genes he may have inherited, Brandon Cronenberg has his own distinct flair for the grotesque. Among the weirder images and innovations here are a butcher shop that sells what appear to be cuts of meat replicated from celebrity tissue; a TV network that beams out updates 24-7 on stars’ body parts, with an emphasis on crotch photos and colonoscopy footage; a doctor (Malcolm McDowell, quite at home in this bizarro universe) with skin grafts from four different people on one arm; and recurring images of needles being stuck in all manner of imaginative and unwelcome places.
On a more prosaic level, the film suffers from basic pacing issues, particularly in its increasingly slack and repetitive second half, by which point the moral rot of nonstop celebrity worship has been duly beaten to death. Icky though it is, “Antiviral” never builds the sort of character investment or narrative momentum that would allow its visceral horrors to seriously disturb, rather than seeming like choice gross-out moments lovingly designed for maximum viewer recoil.
With its flat, detached tone and fixed camera setups, the pic consistently opts for grisly dark comedy over horror-thriller tension, a strategy that does pay off with a certain gruesome logic in the film’s nightmarish final image. D.p. Karim Hussain’s crisp, high-definition images rep the chief standout of a decent tech package.