Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran during the Cannes Film Festival. “Antiviral” opens this week.
From his earliest days, David Cronenberg pioneered a new form of body horror that never lost its potency. If there’s such a thing as auteur DNA, the filmmaker must have passed some fundamental piece of it to his son, Brandon. The newcomer’s debut, “Antiviral,” literally oozes the influences of the senior Cronenberg from its pores. It would demand such a reading even if the two directors had no family connection, but the comparison isn’t exactly flattering: The younger Cronenberg has made a derivative exercise in body horror that plays as little more than low rent Cronenberg pastiche.
That inspiration is clear from the opening minutes, when “Antiviral” lays out its eerily dystopia in which companies extract non-infectious diseases from ill celebrities and harvest their blood for eager masses hoping to experience a famous person’s malady, suggesting the fanaticism of TMZ culture taken to a grotesque extreme.
Pale-faced clinician Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones, ceaselessly grim and unsmiling, the poor man’s Michael Pitt) spends his days injecting eager patients with famous diseases and sending them along. Cronenberg quickly establishes this dreary world and never leaves it, creating an oppressively inhospitable atmosphere from start to finish.
When Syd is called to the home of dying movie star Hannah Geist to extract her illness, he winds up catching it shortly before her news of her death hits the airwaves. With Geist fans and corrupt lab technicians clamoring to get at the bug, Syd lurks (really, all anyone in “Antiviral” does is lurk) in the shadows until plucked by mystery figures to investigate the cause for Geist’s illness — and, of course, his own. From there, “Antiviral” nudges the plot forward but never lifts off from its one-note focus on the genre elements defining every moment.
The movie looks as dour as the people wandering through it, shot against blank white backdrops and drab office spaces seemingly rented from the sets of “Minority Report” and “THX 1138.” Thematically, however, “Antiviral” runs through the spectrum of Cronenberg’s greatest hits, from “Videodrome” to “The Fly,” “Scanners” and “The Brood.” These are by no means terrible reference points, and Cronenberg occasionally does them proud, but never makes them gel together.
The movie is best appreciated in terms of a few scattered moments of nightmarish unease rather than any cumulative effect. When Malcolm McDowell shows up as a twisted doctor wearing transplanted celebrity skin and shudders with delight as runs his fingers across it, the strange mix of surreal comedy and sheer visceral weirdness hints at a kind of tonal complexity that “Antiviral” generally lacks.
Based on Brandon Cronenberg’s short film “Broken Tulips,” “Antiviral” develops a satisfactory conceptual foundation and ample visual oddities to prop it up. If nothing else, it mainly succeed at singling the filmmaker out as a potential new voice on the genre front, if not a potential new vision. For that, he will have to move beyond the familiar stuff. Cronenberg’s final image finds dark bodily fluid oozing from a pore as pursed lips rise up to meet it, inadvertently hinting at two interpretations: the arrival of new Cronenbergian blood and a movie that unabashedly drains the Cronenberg oeuvre dry.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC Films releases “Antiviral” in limited theatrical release this week, but it will do most of its business on VOD, where genre fans may be drawn to its premise and the first letter of its title guarantees it will be prominently listed.