Body horror and the return to image-heavy ideas: Antiviral

29 January 2013

Released in UK cinemas on Friday 1 February, 'Antiviral' is a confident and unsettling debut from Brandon Cronenberg.

At one point during Antiviral, the incomprehensibility of its plot no longer seems to matter. A loose succession of riffs on a theme, the film is a welcome and rather old-fashioned return to a kind of filmmaking that is ideas- and image-driven. In this sense, comparisons to debut director Brandon Cronenberg’s father David are inevitable and, perhaps contrary to expectations, profitable. With its dystopian setting and a focus upon inter-corporation infiltration, Antiviral recalls Scanners (1981); its gradual incline towards a claustrophobic, nightmarish subjectivity that never quite resolves itself echoes Videodrome (1983); and as an exploration of bodily limitations in an age of technocrats and beauty clerks, it resembles The Fly (1987).

More generally, Cronenberg, Jr.’s first feature injects new and unsettling energies into body horror, the genre to which dad’s work helped contribute and cement. In a celebrity-obsessed future, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is employed by a beauty clinic to sell customers viruses that have been extracted from their favourite stars. One such star is Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), a “beyond perfect” blonde famous for being famous, whose illness Syd secretly injects into himself at home. When Geist’s own virus turns out to be fatal, however, it’s feared she is the victim of an assassination attempt. With his own health deteriorating (depending upon a walking stick, he cuts a twisty figure similar to Christopher Walken’s Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, 1983) Syd becomes part of a murder mystery beyond his grasp.

There’s a clinical veneer to all of this, and it’s the images that linger most. Some of these images are referential, conveyed through language alone. To customer Edward Porris (“porous”?), for instance, Syd says Geist’s eyes “seem to reach right beneath your skin and touch your organs”. In another scene, we hear characters casually discussing a celebrity’s missing vulva, and speculating as to the possibility that she has a dysfunctional organ in her urinary tract. As the film enters its stuttering final third, however, literal images begin to haunt us: the many close-ups of needles piercing flesh are less discomforting than that sequence in which Syd imagines himself literally converging with a machine, to the tune of thunderous synth drones that invoke an interior throbbing. Such disturbing imagery (giving the viruses a Francis Bacon-like facial distortion is particularly inspired) is made all the more effective by the sleazy offset of wry humour: as one character tells Syd well into the film, “I’m afraid you’ve become involved in something sinister.”

[Originally posted at Front Row Reviews on 15 October 2012.]