Imagine a near-future world in which slavering fans of the famous are able to enjoy not merely a vicarious love of their idols, but also an intimate corporeal connection. A world in which obsessive admirers can pay to be infected with a worshipped celebrity’s minor ailments and life-threatening diseases, so enjoying a close viral bond. Front-loaded with big ideas and satirical possibilities, Brandon Cronenberg’s début feature, ‘Antiviral’, shares mutated DNA with his father David’s ‘body horror’ films, but lacks the narrative focus, intellectual rigour and infectious wit to propagate its germ of an idea.
Despatched by his employers, The Lucas Clinic, to extract an infected sample from beautiful young starlet Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), pale lab technician Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) penetrates her shiny lip with a hypodermic needle, as she lays blindfolded on a bed. Not immune to the superficial appeal of celebrity contagion, he later infects himself with her ailment, intending to sell harvested cultures on the black market. Almost immediately, Syd succumbs to a virulent fever, suffering disturbing hallucinations and collapsing. When he regains consciousness, he learns Hannah is dead, which means his days too are numbered. Convinced that Hannah died as the result of a commercial conspiracy, Syd tries to unravel the mystery surrounding her demise.
With its luminescent white sets and ascetic cinematography, ‘Antiviral’ creates an antiseptic world in which medical control and cynical marketing feed the sad dreams of celebrity acolytes. Landry Jones’s translucent pallor adds an extra dimension to a performance whose fragile angularity is almost expressionistic in its intensity. Yet ‘Antiviral’ never wholly succeeds as either a surgical satire or a medical conspiracy thriller, and its tedious last third is like a diseased body dragging itself slowly to the grave.