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Antiviral

“going viral” — An idea, concept, product, video or other cultural meme exponentially increases in popularity, meaning its popularity doubles every minute, hour, day, month or other unit of time. –Urban Dictionary

Antiviral begins with a premise that is simultaneously simple, creative, and batshit crazy. Set sometime vaguely in the near future, it depicts a world completely overrun by celebrity culture. In fact, celebrities are worshipped so highly by so many people that there’s a multibillion-dollar trade in celebrity diseases. This means that there are companies (yes, plural) that negotiate licensing deals to come and take samples of assorted illnesses from famous people. These illnesses are then isolated and sold to fans who are so obsessed that they want to share a disease with the celebrity of their choice.

Does that sound like a stupid and disgusting idea? Well, that’s because you’re a sane and rational person. Though if nothing else, you have to admire a concept that satirizes celebrity worship by taking it to a point that’s quite literally unhealthy.

But suppose — just for argument’s sake — that you are a pervert who dreams of having sex with some celebrity. In fact, let’s cut the crap: Take a moment to think about the celebrity you dream of having sex with. You have a celebrity crush, I have a celebrity crush, not everyone likes to admit it but everyone does. Anyway, for the moment, suppose that your celebrity crush had an STD. Nothing serious, just a manageable case of herpes or whatever. Even so, it follows that if you were boning your famous partner, you would share in that STD. From there, it’s a small leap in logic to assume that someone would be so desperately perverted that they’d want the exact same STD as their star-crossed love, just to bring their sex fantasies that much closer to the real thing.

Furthermore, there’s a strong emotional bond between people who share the same illness. If you don’t think that lifelong friendships can be forged between two strangers with nothing in common but a shared debilitation, then you’ve never heard of a support group. This is especially true for our protagonist, who’s dying of the exact same disease that killed off a celebrity. He’s going through the exact same experience that she did, and he feels intensely close to her through the whole ordeal, though of course the affection isn’t necessarily requited. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forgive me, but I really want to establish this weird celebrity culture in greater detail before discussing the story. Since the narrative takes a backseat to all the themes and discussions at play, it’s only right.

Anyway, it bears mentioning that these companies don’t sell their designer viruses straight from the source. First, they go through a subtle alteration to ensure that it affects the customer and only the customer. Not only does this make the resulting virus eligible for patenting, but eliminating the contagious factor also ensures that there won’t be any unauthorized copyright infringement going on. The whole concept of public safety and averting any global contagions is of course completely ignored.

Even so, it turns out that germs are surprisingly easy to smuggle. Particularly daring criminals without any regard for their own immune systems can simply infect themselves and sneak corporate property past the most diligent security. Then, a particularly savvy bioscientist with the right equipment can isolate the disease and remove the copy protection before selling it on the black market.

Then we have another bizarre facet of this designer bioscience industry: “cell steaks.” There are butcher shops — honest, legitimate butcher shops — that clone muscle and skin cells of various celebrities. They then — legally and openly, mind you — grow these cells into steaks for paying customers. To eat. Yes, people are paying good money to eat the flesh of their favorite celebrity, grown in a vat and cut into pieces by a butcher. First of all, that may be the single biggest “fuck you” to poor people that I’ve ever heard of in reality or fiction.

Secondly, how is any of this legal? Well, the film invokes Henrietta Lacks, the real-life cancer patient whose tumorous cells have been grown for research purposes all over the world since she died in 1951. Those lab-grown cervical cancer cells aren’t Henrietta Lacks herself, so why should lab-grown celebrity muscle and tissue cells be treated any differently? More to the point, if human meat was actually grown in a vat instead of peeled from an actual living person, is it still cannibalism? And of course, there’s the monetary aspect. The film posits that if it was cost-effective to do so, the government would legalize cloning entire celebrities just to kill them and sell them for parts.

All of this boils down to the nature of celebrities as cash cows. The tabloids in the film cycle through at least half a dozen stars, but there’s no mention of whether they’re actors or models or whatever. Because it doesn’t matter. This whole movie is built on the idea that “fame” is really just a word for “able to make money.” And the film expresses this by using famous people as incubators for merchandise, even after they’re nothing more than famous corpses.

In fact, calling them famous “people” would be going farther than the movie does. One character explicitly states that celebrities are not people, but merely shared hallucinations that we all agree to take part in. People put in hard work to be famous, sure, but that hard work goes entirely toward presenting an image that everyone chooses to buy or ignore.

To recap: We have a movie about the increasingly demented nature of mass media, presented by way of body horror and disgusting practical effects. Sounds like a David Cronenberg film, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t. No, this was written and directed as the feature debut of Cronenberg’s son, name of Brandon. And I gotta say, he does a solid job. Though his thematic ruminations are none too subtle, they are at least novel and intriguing, not to mention extremely bold. The effects are also presented superbly, and the visuals in general are amazing. Most of the film is lit with a blinding white that’s at once off-putting and oppressively sterile (ironic, given the filthy and bloody premise). Even so, Cronenberg Jr. knows how to make a film dark and gritty when it creates the necessary atmosphere, and he knows how to shake the camera just right when it puts us in the head of our protagonist.

Yes, we may as well get to the story at this point.

Our protagonist is Syd March, played by Caleb Landry Jones. He works for the Lucas Clinic, procuring and selling the viruses of the stars. And he also works as a germ mule, smuggling diseases to the black market on the side. But then, a famous woman named Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, who’s collaborated quite a few times with Cronenberg Sr. lately) dies of an unidentified virus which Syd is sent to collect. Since that virus is worth the payday of a lifetime, Syd goes ahead and infects himself with the virus, thinking that he can unload it before dying himself. Unfortunately, the virus turns out to be such a hardy specimen that it fries his patent-breaking equipment. So now he has to save his own life by figuring out what killed Hannah, and that path quickly lands him square in the middle of a massive conspiracy.

I could talk about the cast, but there’s really very little point. Malcolm McDowell is the most interesting actor in the supporting cast, and he’s only here for a few scenes. Sarah Gadon plays a prominent leading role, but that’s mostly because her image is used in such a haunting and omnipresent way. The only actor who’s even worth discussing is Jones, who perfectly embodies this film. It’s not easy to describe such a pale and greasy little guy as he flatters a customer into buying some herpes, but the sight of it is so sleazy and predatory that it sets the tone of the entire film. Also, there’s the fact that Syd spends most of the movie working through all of the famous diseases he’s infected himself with. The guy even looks sickly, with freckles so dense that they cover his skin like liver spots. Again, the image of a guy dressing up in a fancy suit trying to pretend that he isn’t coughing his throat out is a perfect description of the tone that this movie was going for.

Antiviral is not a film for the squeamish, and I’ll admit that the narrative is nothing more than a conveyance for so many greater thematic ideas. Even so, Cronenberg Jr. puts forward a lot of bold and intriguing ideas, nicely seasoned with fantastic visuals and practical effects. Casting Caleb Landry Jones and Sarah Gadon as his leads helped a lot as well.

If you have a taste for gross-out body horror films with a hefty amount of brains and creativity, go see some of David Cronenberg’s films. Especially if you haven’t already, because really, what have you been waiting for? And if you like what you see from him, give his son’s work a try.

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