Body horror is one of those totally hit or miss genres. Mediocrity is rare since the style is extreme by its nature. Either the conceit of the story works or it doesn't. Beyond that, the best and the worst fall into shades of gray. Does the director choose visuals over storytelling? Does he linger too long on shocking images because he knows they'll get a rise out of the audience even if it hurts the narrative? The tiny little choices in focus, acting style, and effects separate the the great from the good and the bad from the terrible. Perhaps it's unfair to mention that the writer/director of Antiviral is Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg, the king of body horror. They're experimenting within the same genre and even share some conceits--strong male lead, unreachable woman in peril, corporations as branded sources of pure evil--but choose wildly different focuses. For David Cronenberg, it's the message of the film above all loyalty to storytelling or even character consistency. For Brandon Cronenberg, it's all about overwhelming and oppressive visual structure to shock the audience into an unsettling numbness.
Antiviral is about the extremity of celebrity gossip culture. In an unspecified future, Syd March works for the largest and most popular distributor of celebrity diseases. His job is to obtain samples from sick celebrities, transport them to the lab, and alter their genetic code so they can be copywritten and sold to fans who want to share everything with their idols. Syd also works a side business, injecting himself with tiny portions of the celebrity disease sample to sell on the black market. It's not the wisest career move.
Brandon Cronenberg puts his focus on the absurdity of celebrity gossip. The famous people in the film just happen to be on the TV and in the magazines for totally unspecified reasons. People watch their every move. The press get footage of invasive medical procedures to cover everything from birth defects to deadly diseases. Even death row inmates are desirable superstars because they've been on television, and Syd's company is more than willing to come in at the last minute to pull a sample before the switch is pulled in the death chamber.
Antiviral is uncomfortably bright and clinical the whole way through. Almost every wall, floor, and light bulb is pristine and white. Even the lab-grown celebrity meat supply--not cannibalism per the law since it's only muscle tissue, not full human bodies--is white and displayed with the utmost care. Everything is a canvas for the ridiculous blood about to be sprayed everywhere. Body horror isn't body horror without gore, flaunted or implied.
Cronenberg isn't one for subtlety. Every gesture from behind the lens is grand. When the shocks take over, they're huge. A disembodied voice from a grate is nothing compared to where the voice is actually coming from. The medical injections are shown in tight close-ups, needle penetrating the flesh of the arms, lips, and anywhere else the client or celebrity wants it.
When everything is so bold, the story is easily lost. That is the greatest flaw of Antiviral. The film is very compelling. It's just driven by a great visual style and two strong performances (Caleb Landry Jones as Syd and Sarah Gadon as ubiquitous celebrity Hannah Geist), not narrative. Even Jones and Gadon can't escape the slog of the screenplay when Cronenberg wants to play with visual gore and cinematography some more. Brilliant scenes go on so long that they fade to the mundane.
There is an argument to be made that Antiviral intentionally overplays everything to mimic the everything is breaking, exclusive, important, and shocking style of celebrity gossip reports. Cronenberg deserves applause for fully committing to such a strong vision of horror on his debut feature film, but the film itself starts to suffer for his ambitions. Antiviral is a breath of fresh air clouded by excess in a genre that for far too long has almost exclusively internalized the fear of the body itself.
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