Long live the new flesh! The new flesh here being David Cronenberg’s son Brandon, who seems to have inherited his father’s body-horror fixation and has used it to direct his feature-length debut Antiviral, an unnerving yet very entertaining piece of science fiction.
Antiviral offers a disturbing new meaning to our culture of celebrity obsession. Televisions everywhere show round-the-clock footage of their lives and newspapers are full of the tiniest stories and scandals. But that’s just the beginning. Syd Marsh (Caleb Landry Jones) works for a company that specialises in injecting members of the public with diseases that have been taken from specific celebrities; you could be walking around with Madonna’s chest cold if you wanted to. Part of Syd’s job is to ‘copyright’ these infections: to remove all possibilities of contagion so that once they’re injected they cannot be passed on. His desire to make a bit of extra money on the side however, coupled with his own addictions, leads him to be injected with a disease so incurable, it becomes a matter of life and death.
More a criticism of celebrity culture than an accurate vision of the future, there are moments in this film that are frankly alarming, even when compared to our present day society of Big Brother, X-Factor and Heat magazine, a world in which attaining celebrity status is the only worthwhile ambition. In Antiviral, for instance, there are companies that have developed ‘cell stakes’, slabs of grey meat grown from the muscle cells of the rich and famous that people actually queue up to buy and subsequently eat for lunch, their excuse being that it makes them feel closer to those they admire. It’s moments like these that make it a hard concept to imagine, yet it’s a credit to Cronenberg’s direction, his cold, very clinical approach to every scene, that makes it somehow believable.
What makes Antiviral worth watching though, is Caleb Landry Jones, whose on-screen presence is beyond sinister. You might recognise him from X Men: First Class, The Last Exorcism and a couple of Breaking Bad episodes, but Antiviral is very much his breakthrough role; he won’t be forgotten in a hurry. Very pale, very freckled and with a ponytail of ginger hair, he has this contemptuous expression on his face as if trying to keep from shouting at every client who comes into his office, yet each line of dialogue is considered and slow, sometimes menacing and other times devoid of any emotion at all, and he has such a mesmerising way of walking through doors that it becomes hard to take your eyes off him. Yet Jones’ talent really comes into effect as the virus starts to take control of his body, developing a contorted, demonic stagger as he attempts to go about his life as though nothing is wrong.
Now it wouldn’t be right to compare the films of father and son. There are certainly elements that share similarities: the hospital settings of Dead Ringers, the exploration of media and addiction in Videodrome, but Antiviral needs to be viewed as a completely separate piece of cinema, one that is refreshingly unique in its approach to a topic dealt with many times before, portraying a not-so-distant future with a strange, yet very absorbing bleakness. It’s a well-directed film with an extraordinary performance at its centre that serves as a perfect showcase for the brilliance of both Brandon Cronenberg and Caleb Landry Jones; let’s hope their collaborations continue.