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Stephanie Ogrodnik [Film Festival 11.08.12] scifi horror thriller



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Brandon Cronenberg's directorial debut, Antiviral is a twisted display of a specific type of sickness permeating every tissue of a manipulated society. Syd is an inside man, selling the Dorian Lucas' copyrighted diseases from his exclusive contributors within his clinic, and then smuggling his product out in his own body to later sell on the black market. However, after infecting himself with the latest disease from popular celebrity Hannah Geist, he collapses in his apartment and wakes up the next day to learn that Hannah Geist is dead. Now, Syd is carrying her killer-her highly profitable killer. At times, Cronenberg loses his narrative to his own world and concept, emphasizing repetitive style tactics, while barreling through crucial information. Nevertheless, his alternate future and loud social commentary stimulates its audiences from beginning to end.


Syd's world is sterile white. The atmosphere of the Lucas Clinic is charged by monochromatic white on white, fluorescent lights and repeated blown up images of the clinic's most prized provider, Hannah Geist. One could almost smell the hospital anti-septic, but the posh contemporary design reminds us that this is a home of "innovation" and special "connoisseurs," not a place of sickness. This also adds to the irony that the salesmen in the clinic are marketing the concept of sharing a disease with celebrities, feeding a social sickness rather than curing it. Syd's apartment matches this environment, though it is unclear whether it is out of necessity or preference. Syd's disinfected home life makes it possible to cultivate his homemade diseases without the threat of contamination. However, as we're introduced to his daily habits, marked by a fixed diet of orange juice and white bread sandwiches, we see that Syd is also a man of unfailing routine and structure, practically born out of the tiles of the Lucas Clinic.

Just as prevalent as the theme of extreme celebrity obsession is the commentary on corporations and their pursuit of profit at the expense of clients and partners. Video ads don the walls of attractive models with perfect skin and makeup glamorizing sickness. One ad goes as far as depicting its model smiling seductively at the camera, syringe in hand, promoting the puss-filled sore at the corner of her mouth. This is appropriate, as one of Hannah Geist's top sellers is a modified and copyrighted strand of the Herpes simplex virus. It's also the first sale that we see Syd accomplish, catering to the needs of an obsessed young, male client.

Though company owner Dorian Lucas tells a reporter that he doesn't believe he is responsible for selling the "cultural disease." He makes the statement that, "Celebrities are not people. They're group hallucinations." The status of "celebrity" is not the work of the individual but a "collaborative" social perception. Dorian Lucas is only responsible for providing the intimate connection between celebrities and fans that his client's crave. It seems that every decision from every celebrity-based industry, from the meat markets, to the gossip tabloids, to the competing clinics, is marked with the same rhetoric-it's their duty to provide their services to wanting clients. But as Hannah Geist's billboard toward above the city, peering down at its public, there is the sense that the population is buying into an addiction, enforced by these corporations. The Hannah Geist phenomenon is comparable to the Girl With the Hungry Eyes, except rather than preying on her men, the people are lead to prey on themselves.

Syd's colleagues on the black market are less forgiving. Once one catches wind of Syd's illness, he himself becomes an article of trade and a source of commerce. He is a cash cow that they intend to milk dry, as long as demand is high. Between the brutality of the black market providers and the calm indifference of the major corporations, Cronenberg make for a grim portrayal of modern day society that somehow doesn't feel too far from home.

Unfortunately, between the exposition and philosophical verbiage, the story falls victim to the complexity it forces. Cronenberg struggles with intellectualizing a metaphor for modern day media obsessions and the evils of big business, while building a sci-fi world based on the complex buying and selling of disease. Did I also mention the intricate process of investigating conspiracies between competing corporations before falling prey to a deadly illness? The downfalls of the film are in no way related to the film's vapidity or lack of ideas from Brandon Cronenberg-it's his flawed juggling act of managing several in his first feature. The issue is not the viewers' inability to follow the narrative, but the exhausted method of force-feeding information in order to reassure us that we won't get lost. Also, the use of a copyrighting machine to subvert the complex process of genetically tweaking a disease-as well as literally putting a face to a disease to make it more visually accessible to viewers-is somewhat hilarious. I'm sure any biotech major will be highly amused at the non-science of altering a virus via twisting knobs and keeping an eye on the funny picture ahead.

This is also reflected in the structural shortcomings of the narrative, which caused additional problems in creating a balance between the many themes and subplots. The synopsis of Antiviral is often described as a man striving to find a cure before time runs out. The problem with this is that the actual plot of Syd searching for the cure to his disease. In reality, this plot doesn't come into play, until after about 40 minutes into the film. Though it is arguably the point of the film when Syd takes action, marking the beginning of the second act, it almost feels closer to the midpoint. Before this time, it appears that the first act is supposed to jump off when Syd realizes he's dying. While there is a great deal of action and exposition that separates these two points described, it almost feels like the forward momentum actually hits a plateau, as we observe the protagonist being dragged in different directions, but not actually doing anything.

The composition of scenes becomes repetitive and restricted in some cases. It is not difficult to find yourself in awe of the remarkable shot of Caleb Landry Jones placed in the center of the frame, surrounded by the stark white backdrop of a what we will come to know as the Lucas Clinic billboard. It is difficult to get excited by the eight following shots of Jones posed in the center of the frame before a white wall, and a grey wall, and in a doorway surrounded by the blank space of a green wall. Caleb Landry Jones himself is unique and interesting in appearance, especially within the sets of this film, but Jones staring stoically into the middle distance as he enters different rooms can't carry a film. The same can be said about syringes piercing skin, which really loses its creepiness after the first four close-ups.

Aside from this fascination with Jones in front of various backdrops, the realization of Cronenberg's world is chillingly tangible. The mark of any great Sci-fi is the construction of its world, seemingly reachable to our own but identifiably other. The alternate future that our characters find themselves in is marked by wealth, exclusivity and depravity. Despite the pristine façade of the Lucas Clinics, the invasive gossip and repetitive sales pitch scripts create a bleak tone that matches with the constant dreary overcast of the city. The celebrity cell steaks sold in slabs at a local meat market or as a delicacy in upscale restaurants come with an air of bourgeoisie and a necessary justification for why it's not promoting cannibalism.

Before the screening, the announcer stated that if anyone in the audience has seen a David Cronenberg film, "The apple is still dangling on that tree." There is clearly an influence from his father, from the gooey cell steaks, to the odd sexual overtones, to the bloody-vomit-inducing illnesses (though I suppose it's also comparable to 28 Days Later). However, Antiviral is very much an animal of its own kind, as unique as its patented viruses. Cronenberg stumbles through his ideas at times, but he has incredible ideas and a concept that actually feels original. As a directorial debut, it falters under some of the common first missteps, but this is a filmmaker that may be worth keeping an eye on.

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