There will come a day, and a blessed day it will be, when we reach the saturation point in our obsession with celebrity. It's proven a resilient phenomenon, brought on by the Internet's "24-minute" news cycle, dozens of cable channels needing cheap reality-show talent who'll do anything for fame and, of course, our tragically misplaced priorities. Oddly enough, one of the very best movies to tackle our fascination with celebrity came out in the pre-Internet era: released in 1983, Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy works so well because its tone is melancholy, desperate, and slightly nuts, which is the most appropriate lens through which to consider what we value as a culture.
Thirty years after The King of Comedy, we have its spiritual sequel: the cold, clammy Antiviral. In this worst-case scenario of near-future social rot, the celebrity-obsessed can visit a clinic and have themselves injected with viruses harvested from famous people. It's the ultimate expression of one's love for a celebrity: you literally have your idol's diseased cells inside your body, infecting you with the flu or perhaps herpes. It's a provocative, darkly satirical premise that benefits from, and is hurt by, the director bringing it to life.
Brandon Cronenberg is the 33-year old scion of director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Scanners, and the recent Cosmopolis), and the visual and thematic sensibilities of father and son are shockingly similar. While there's validity in telling this story in the sterile, emotionless, and methodical tones that the elder Cronenberg would have surely preferred, one senses that Brandon chose this approach as a matter of genetics, not story necessity. Indeed, by the second half, the story itself becomes secondary to its visual representation, critically undercutting its power as a shame-inducing cautionary tale. That said, Antiviral is a gutsy, notable debut for a young filmmaker who needs to find a unique voice to match his unique ideas.
Antiviral: 'Celebrities aren't people'
“Celebrities aren't people. They're group hallucinations,” says the founder of the Lucas Clinic, which draws the blood of participating celebrities when they fall ill and sells it to worshipful customers. After extracting the star's diseased plasma, machines copyright-protect it and render it non-contagious. Pale, reedy Syd Marsh (X-Men: First Class' Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman at Lucas, hard-selling the public on the thrill of being injected with the disease-ridden blood of their pop culture obsession (“from her cells to your cells”).
Syd, however, has secretly cultivated a side business smuggling celebrity blood out of the clinic by injecting it into his own body and then selling it on the black market. He is both carrier and courier, a freckled freak who gets into serious trouble after injecting himself with the blood of ailing starlet Hannah Geist (Cosmopolis' Sarah Gadon), who winds up dying from her illness. Slowly deteriorating from whatever killed Hannah, Syd must save himself while avoiding rival companies who covet the disease he's pilfered from the unsuspecting It Girl.
Caleb Landry Jones would seem a wise choice for Syd. A sunken-eyed, addict-thin representation of moral decay, Jones' alien physicality works here. However, he elicits none of our sympathy; as a result, his main function is reduced to escorting us around his depraved world. Still, when your world is as consistently fascinating as this one, that's not such a bad thing.
Scene after scene, Brandon Cronenberg craftily adds another absurd – though never ridiculous – detail of a society gone mad with star worship. Here, celebrities are literally served as meat, their cells harvested to create Celebrity Cell Steaks, a metaphor for our voracious appetite for idolatry that would be downright silly if it weren't so achingly trenchant in this context. The same goes for the television network devoted to nonstop coverage of celebrity's body parts, from unintentional crotch shots to colonoscopy footage. As topically charged as these elements are, they're still no substitute for caring about Syd and that's where Antiviral, for all its pith and perversity, comes up short. As plot complications accumulate, Cronenberg loses track of where his story's strengths really lie.
Brandon Cronenberg shares David Cronenberg's interests
At this early stage in his career, Brandon Cronenberg clearly shares his father's interest in characters betrayed by their own bodies and the consequences of machine advancement. They also share an ability to choose strong cinematographers. In Antiviral, Karim Hussain's cold, symmetrical lockdown shots slowly give way to handheld camerawork as Syd runs afoul of a black-market blood peddler and a competing corporation.
On the minus side, while the many close-ups of needles piercing flesh and blood juxtaposed against Hannah's creamy skin have a certain clinical beauty, they serve only to remind us of the past ten years of low-budget horror films. Pacing is also an issue. Antiviral doesn't sufficiently tighten as Syd's predicament gets more dire, which consequently starts to suck the air out of the movie. Getting us back on track, if a bit too late, is the final scene, a welcome reminder of what initially drew us into the story.
One would not consider Antiviral to be speculative fiction. But the impulse to have patches of celebrity skin grafted onto your arm (like Hannah's doctor, played by Malcolm McDowell) seems a logical progression from stalking someone like Justin Bieber or Kristen Stewart. It's enough to make you believe that within ten years, something akin to the events of Antiviral will actually happen. Hopefully by then, Brandon Cronenberg will have shed the influence of his father and found his own style with which to comment on the issue.
Antiviral (2012). Director and Screenplay: Brandon Cronenberg. Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue, Sheila McCarthy, Malcolm McDowell, Nicholas Campbell, Wendy Crewson.
Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral photo: IFC Films.