The son also rises: Brandon Cronenberg makes debut with Antiviral

by Mark Burger

Antiviral marks the provocative feature debut from writer/director Brandon Cronenberg, son of the legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg. It’s hard not to detect some of David Cronenberg’s influence in his son’s work, both in the film’s themes and even in several scenes. Still, there are far worse filmmakers to emulate than David Cronenberg, and clearly Brandon has a similar eye for the bizarre and the grotesque.

Set in a not-too-distant future where celebrity worship has been taken to perhaps the ultimate extreme, one of the most popular pastimes is to purchase and be infected with viruses suffered by celebrities. (Antiviral is the sort of film you either go with or you don’t — and it begins with the concept.)

Caleb Landry Jones stars as Syd March, a “virus broker” who’s been making money on the side by using his own body as an incubator. Not unlike his father’s films (including The Brood, The Fly and Videodrome), science has progressed to a point of no return, and woe to those who reach that point.

The most popular celebrity virus on the market is that of superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Hannah — literally. (It’s one of the film’s more amusing conceits that the audience never finds out exactly what Hannah is famous for.)

It’s not long before our pallid protagonist finds himself the pawn in an even larger and, if possible, even weirder conspiracy. Antiviral is a science-fiction movie, but some of its sharper observations are drawn from contemporary life and culture. And although it’s not explicit, there are some queasy, uncomfortable moments throughout. This too is a Cronenberg family trademark, and another is that in the Cronenberg universe, happy endings are less frequent than bloody ones.

In addition to Jones as the sickly but soulful Syd, the cast includes Malcolm McDowell (a welcome and appropriate presence in these weird goings-on), Sheila McCarthy, Wendy Crewson and Nicholas Campbell. In yet another nod to his father’s work, Campbell seems to be playing an older version of the character he played in The Brood (1979). Like his father, Cronenberg also displays a dry, mordant sense of humor. Antiviral isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly something different, and cult status is likely. Just like dear old dad.

Antiviral is scheduled to open Friday

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