Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature Antiviral (2012) presents a stirring, science fiction vision of a world so absorbed in the private affairs of celebrities that specialty clinics have sprung up to allow clients an intimate connection with their celebrity of choice by sharing in their illnesses. That’s right! Be it a common cold, a flu, or something decidedly more permanent and life-threatening like an STD, inhabitants of this world can actually pay for the opportunity to have the same virus that passed through the body of a celebrity ravage their own.
Although no doubt horrifying and grotesque, the film’s satirical take on the cult of celebrity is quite sobering in that it’s truthfully not so far-fetched as it appears at a glance. This feature-length version of Cronenberg’s 2008 short, Broken Tulips, follows Syd March, an employee of The Lucas Clinic who smuggles copyrighted boutique viruses out of the clinic in his own body to sell on the black market. Syd unknowingly injects himself with a particularly heinous manufactured virus intended to kill a certain celebrity and he finds himself searching for the virus’s origin and cure even as his physical faculties fade.
Played by Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class), Syd remains a source of constant mystery and intrigue throughout the movie. Through a combination of Jones’ phenomenal subtlety and his stylized physical performance, Syd’s motives are largely obscured throughout the bulk of the running time, generating immense tension through the sheer opacity of our protagonist. The only other character I can recall being so thoroughly compelled and perplexed by upon first viewing a film is James Spader’s character in David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). With that in mind, I have to say that it’s hard to look at Antiviral and not see shades of David Cronenberg’s early work there with its emphasis on biological modification and the intrinsic horrors of the human body. That comparisons such as these might be drawn between Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature and the work of his father is at once not totally surprising and yet a major testament to his talent, for to my mind there are few filmmakers working today as great as David Cronenberg. This is not to say that Brandon Cronenberg’s work here is somehow derivative of his father’s, merely that his concerns are quite similar.
Antiviral is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from IFC Midnight. And trust me, you should buy the Blu-ray of this one for sure. The film is so visually sharp– something discussed at great length in the commentary– that you’ll want it presented with the highest level of clarity possible. And indeed the Blu-ray transfer is absolutely pristine. By way of special features, the disc includes the aforementioned commentary by Brandon Cronenberg and cinematographer Karim Hussain, the “Anatony of a Virus” making-of featurette, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes with optional commentary by Cronenberg, and the film’s trailer. Notably absent, however, is the original short, “Broken Tulips,” which is a real shame. I was a big fan of the short when it first premiered online.
It should be noted that the feature-length commentary on Antiviral mostly relates how the film was made, with specific regard to cinematographic techniques and other such technical matters, rather than the theories/inspiration behind the film, which is something I always look for in a commentary. Given its heavy technical bent, though, cinematographers in particular are going to find this commentary especially useful as Hussain is quite open about his process and discusses the cameras and lenses at length. Viewers more interested in the history of the film and Cronenberg’s inspiration behind it will want to turn to “Anatomy of a Virus” for that material.