Antiviral looks and feels like Cronenberg’s take on Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, only it’s not that Cronenberg, and it’s not really that “Brave New World”. The debut feature from Brandon Cronenberg, yes the son of that Cronenberg, Antiviral mixes cold and clinical visuals with a dystopian future where celebrity disease is the drug of choice for the populous. For instance, if one wanted to be closer to their favorite starlet, in the world of Antiviral this is accomplished by receiving an injection of herpes directly from that starlet.
Fitting nicely into the canon of dystopian future films, Antiviral does a fantastic job of making the “not too distant future” world of the film feel as such. Nothing seems that out of place, the world very familiar to what we know now. Even the conceit of celebrity worship rising to the level of disease sharing and lab-cultured meat slabs of celebrity DNA being sold in butcher shops for consumption doesn’t seem to large a leap from our current TMZ, celebrity hunting culture. For the first act, and a large portion of the second act, Antiviral is very content to show and explore this disturbing world, hammering away at the theme that Cronenberg seems interested in. By doing this, and keeping the world similar enough to our own, Antiviral is mostly an effective allegory of what our current celebrity worship culture has become and how far we may be willing to go with it. But then the second half of the movie happens.
There is an inciting incident that knocks Antiviral off of its allegorical track and into more of a biological fever dream. Gone is the wide cultural gaze of self destructive behavior. This is replaced with a very narrow and singular form of self destruction. This is where the film begins to meander from its core conceit. While the theme that is introduced is never completely discarded, it is diverted into a secondary story line that dilutes its interest and power.
This is also the portion that allows the comparison to Brandon Cronenberg’s legendary father. While it is usually unfair to bring the director’s lineage into a film, Antiviral links itself so obviously to David Cronenberg’s visual style that it allows for that criticism pretty openly. Wether it be an subconscious choice from years of observing his father’s career or a more conscious effort to replicate his surname’s style, Antiviral slips into that patented Cronenberg visual style during the second half of the film. In this case, that visual propensity is to the film’s detriment. Gone is the first half’s cold and clinical examination of this literally and figuratively diseased world. In its stead is a visual flourish of disturbing physical symptoms of disease with all real thematic reflection taking a back seat.
Even with that thematic diversion, though, the underlying story and theme does manage to sustain itself through Antiviral’s running time. Through the tonal, and visual, shift, Cronenberg manages to keep the power of his concept strong enough that the finale of the film manages to be completely disturbing and an effective exclamation point to his thesis. Considering this, the unevenness of the film’s diversion is less a complete failure and more a symptom of a talented first-time feature director learning his craft while we watch on screen.