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Brandon Cronenberg’s ‘Antiviral’ and What We Know About Fame

Brandon Cronenberg's 'Antiviral' and What We Know About Fame

Paris Hilton is all but forgotten, the word
“Kardashian” long ago became a late-night comedy punchline, and it’s
hard to remember a high-profile political campaign that did not turn on a
candidate’s movie-worthy charisma. So why would anyone think that noticing our
obsession with celebrity culture counts as something profound? Or even
something to say?  For all its surface
flash  – and some of it really dazzles  –  that sense of rediscovering the
celebrity wheel is what makes Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral a sleek but vapid
thriller. (It’s in theaters and on VOD now.)

Cronenberg, who wrote and directed, has an imagination  that echoes his father, David’s, at its most
twisted: effective, stomach-churning sci-fi meets warped personalities. Here
the premise is self-important and blunt. The hero, Syd , works at a clinic where
regular people come to be injected with cells from the celebrities they worship.
One gets his lip shot up with a herpes virus, just at the place where his
favorite star might have kissed him. Most people go for cells from Hannah Geist,
a blonde mannequin-like woman who resembles the Madonna of a decade ago.

It might have been intriguing to look at how Hannah’s Madonna-like
face and style were created and why. But that doesn’t interest Cronenberg, and
to be fair he never does treat celebrity as more than his MacGuffin, setting
off a plot about black-market cells and a lethal disease. That absence of
thought is exactly the problem, though: it leaves the film with caricatures
instead of characters.  

Caleb Landry Jones can’t overcome the script’s weakness, but
he helps a lot by making Syd a mesmerizing, if laconic, presence. When we see
him in the film’s first shot, he is already sick, a deathly figure with a
thermometer in his mouth, vampire-pale, wraith-thin in a funereal black suit.

Syd’s life is also in danger for another reason: he has been
selling pilfered cells, primarily to a butcher who peddles human-flesh steaks
cultivated from celebrity DNA. (And you thought David Cronenberg’s  The Fly messed with genetics.)

This thin narrative is an excuse for Cronenberg’s style, which has
flair, as well as a taste for thick, wine-colored blood. Syd staggers through chilling
white-walled labs and collapses in his seedy apartment. He finds himself in
Hannah’s luxurious hotel suite, where she lies like Sleeping Beauty. Eventually
he is treated by her own doctor, played by Malcolm MacDowell with an easy touch
of malice.

We almost care whether Syd beats his illness and the black-market thugs, but not quite.
The final image, which offers a big reveal about his character, adds the kind
of substantive detail the film could have used much more of all along.

Resting on the theme that our viral-video world is stupidly
obsessed with fame, Antiviral might sound as if it resonates with the culture. Actually,
it is a film without a point.

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