Antiviral (review)

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Antiviral green light Caleb Landry Jones

I’m “biast” (pro): ooo, science fiction meets celebrity-culture bashing!

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Imagine you just so happened to run into your biggest celebrity crush. She or he is beautiful, talented, smart, and — you discover to your everlasting joy — kind and generous. Because, in her or his saintly beneficence, she or he deigns to bestow upon you one small, gentle kiss, right at the corner of your mouth.

Could life be any better?

Well, what if you acquired more than a memory from that encounter? What if you could proudly show off a blossoming love blister on your lip, a gift of Ms or Mr. Celebrity’s very own personal virus garden?

What if you didn’t have to wait and hope for a chance random encounter? What if you could receive such a gift today?

This is the bespoke service the Lucas Clinic offers its clients. It’s the most exquisite gift you could give to yourself… and aren’t you worth it? Isn’t Ms or Mr. Celebrity deserving of the ultimate in fannish appreciation?


Is it the Lucas Clinic’s marketing brochure? Is it a Sunday magazine puff piece? It’s not real, but it’s not too far off reality, either. Brandon Cronenberg — son of David — has come up with a twisted, creepy extrapolation of our obsession with celebrity and our medicalization of everything with Antiviral. It’s one of the more disturbing and more unsettling films I’ve seen in a quite a while… and also one of the cleverest examples of science fiction cinema in years. I mean: it’s actual science fiction. Who does that anymore?

“Celebrities are not people” in this world, which isn’t so much in our future but in a reality sideways to our own; celebs are “group hallucinations” that belong to the public that made them famous. They are adored in ways that advanced medical science and lots of disposable income make possible, not only via carefully collected and dispensed germs that allow for “biological communion” — ugh — but in other ways that go past disgusting and into the profoundly taboo. Yet the fixation on the biological extends into meanspirited gossip, too, because we revile the famous as much as we worship them. In this world gorgeous young celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon: Cosmopolis) is the height of perfection, yet rumors abound about a deformity that demands that “fashion designers… make special underwear for her.” What this deformity might entail is never more elaborated upon… yet the fact that we are invited to consider it — and that we do — makes us complicit in the horrors depicted here.

Of course such technology as the Lucas Clinic employs is destined for abuse and misuse, and that is our entry into this story. Lucas technician Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones: Contraband, X-Men: First Class) isn’t just a cool professional in the sleek, quiet halls of the clinic: he’s a virus hacker — of course there’s a black market for something so desirable and so expensive. Oh yes, Antiviral isn’t only literally clinical sci-fi but one that has demented fun with the legal niceties of copyright and patents, and how criminals invariably get around them. (How come your friends don’t catch that celeb head cold you just paid a pretty penny for at the Lucas Clinic? Copy protection prevents infectiousness.) As Syd’s misdeeds track the story away from the clinic’s legal (if appalling) work, Cronenberg lets the film slip from a glossy fashion-mag sterility into a place of meaty, bloodshot, sweaty rot.

That’s when it gets really good! Awful, yet compelling.

As is so often the case with all but the most brilliant conceptual science fiction movies, Antiviral is more intriguing as a notion than in where it ultimately goes. A great idea needs more than itself to sustain itself. Cronenberg, screenwriter as well as director, doesn’t know quite how to take his concept through to a wholly satisfactory conclusion. Though it is only the sheer genius of its setup that makes its ending feel like less than what it might be. Taken as a whole, Antiviral is still more substantial and gratifying than most of what is passing for science fiction on the big screen at the moment.

viewed during the 56th BFI London Film Festival

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Mon, Feb 04, 2013 9:20pm

I guess one might say that Cronenberg isn’t Cronenberg any more (see Cosmopolis), but Cronenberg is. I suspect they’d both like that.

Tue, Feb 05, 2013 3:03pm

This looks fascinatingly like one of his dad’s early films, wildly surreal satire with a science fictional premise. How long has this film been out there? I seem to remember seeing a trailer for it on a rental DVD, possibly sometime last year. It looks great, but I can’t help wondering if something this provocative and unconventional is going to get much of a theatrical release.

Less Lee Moore
reply to  bob
Wed, Feb 06, 2013 4:11am

It premiered at TIFF 2012, and had limited release in Canada not long after.

reply to  Less Lee Moore
Wed, Feb 06, 2013 6:02pm

Thanks, Less.