This year’s 65th Cannes Film Festival welcomed not one but two Cronenberg’s as David’s son Brandon premiered his debut film Antiviral (2012). Set in an alternative/near future, the cult of celebrity has become so extreme that the masses now pay to contract their illnesses. For a price, you too can have Angelina Jolie’s cold sores, Brad Pitt’s sore throat or Paris Hilton’s influenza.
Caleb Landry Jones plays Syd March, a pallid, slow-talking executive and salesman for the Lucas Agency which leads the field in selling viral ‘gifts’ from the celebrity of your choice. Part of the reason for his peakiness is that he’s been smuggling out viruses to sell to an illegal viral dealer, passing the stringent security tests by injecting the bacteria into his own body. Why this ploy wouldn’t occur to a company that seems to have a systemic problem with keeping control of its products is only one of many slips from bold, high concept fantasy into silly implausibility.
Things begin to go wrong when the Lucas Agency’s chief celebrity, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), dies of a virus which Syd has already infected himself with. As rival agencies, illegal adversaries and dubious doctors home in on the rogue employee, Syd is forced into solving the mystery surrounding Geist’s death before the fatal trajectory of the disease runs its course. There follows (almost predictably from a Cronenberg) a certain extent of body horror, some frankly confusing conspiring and a final sense that Cronenberg Jr.’s Antiviral doesn’t so much end as run out of steam.
There are some nice satirical touches – the mass media is so intrusive that we get a cystoscopy of a star on live on television, whilst a restaurant sells steaks which are genetically grown from celebrity flesh – but the didactic is clear and we never truly care about any of the characters. Made-up celebrities are always direly unconvincing – see S1m0ne (2002) – but these are particularly so. In addition, Antiviral lead Landry Jones isn’t terrible, but there’s very little to hang onto – he doesn’t seem very convincing as a salesman either.
There is an oddness throughout Antiviral that is worth applauding, but one can’t help but wonder why Brandon Cronenberg would choose to make a debut film that so closely resembles the themes of his father’s best work.