TIFF Review: Antiviral

'It's the Johnny Mnemonic of STDs!'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature film, Antiviral, is every bit the Cronenberg film his father makes. I’m okay with that. Having two Cronenbergs making Cronenberg films in the world works for me. I don’t know if it works for Brandon. I’ll have to ask him.

Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) works for a company that sells celebrity diseases. Fans of a model can get a herpes implant that came right from her bloodstream. The company encrypts these viruses with a form of copy protection, a visual machine that produces a distorted image of their face. Syd steals samples from work to bring home and decrypt with his own face twisty machine at home.

Yeah, it’s body horror, with commentary on the celebrity culture. Brandon Cronenberg revels in the gross close-ups of cold sores and needles injecting into mouths. There are shots of tubes coming out of someone’s skin and organic mutations abound.

Well, one day Syd gets sent to collect the latest Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) sample. Thinking he’ll scoop the competition, he injects himself first, only to find the virus is fatal. Syd tries to unload the virus through his black market connections, and unravels a bigger conspiracy. So it’s the Johnny Mnemonic of STDs!

I really enjoyed the Cronenbergian world of celebrity obsession. People eat meat steaks made from the cloned cells of celebrities. An anus on the TV news makes me smile. It’s an obvious metaphor, but it’s so sick it carries it out to extreme. I got a kick out of all the gross-out touches. If your’e dealing with parasitic obsession, it should be gross. Or at least if you start out being gross, you should keep stepping it up.

The primitive sci-fi technology is interesting too. The decrypting machine is very analog and it really makes no sense why a photo distortion would have anything to do with viral strains or copy encoding. That’s what makes it Cronenbergian, it’s a biological version of what should be technical.

I’m impressed by how white every set is and how full the frames are with white space. It’s a striking look, beautiful on the big screen. It’s very still, with a lot of shots tight on the back of Syd’s head. It’s very effective, and refreshing in a shakycam world. He uses handheld once or twice too, but the overall tone is stillness.

Then stuff has to happen to finish the plot, and it’s less interesting than just living in this world. I mean, the system of black market germ smuggling was fascinating, and Syd’s contacts and competitors are fascinating characters too. Even the Hannah Geist backstory is intriguing. It’s just once the powers that be execute their plan, you’re just waiting for it to resolve.

Antiviral still gets to an interesting place and it’s worth the ride. It’s got pacing issues, which is especially subjective considering the deliberate tone, but it’s never not interesting.