Television broadcasts blasting the latest tabloid exposés of the stars play in the background of Antiviral on seemingly endless loops but within the universe of the movie every single aspect of a celebritiy's being has the potential to be commodified. Muscle cells from the famous are harvested and turned into celebrity steaks and bacon bits so that the masses can cannibalize the public figures that they adore. And the posh Lucas Clinic offers the ultimate means of connection by giving fans the chance to be injected with viruses obtained from their favorite celebrities. In the opening sequence of the movie Syd March, a Lucas Clinic sales rep / technician, makes a persuasive pitch to client Edward Porris, ultimately convincing the young man to be infected with Herpes Simplex obtained from the beautiful, uber-famous Hannah Geist. The scene is horrifying but eerily seductive. What must it be like to be so entranced by a famous figure (or, more accurately, the public image she projects) that you will subject yourself to this kind of suffering in order to experience a physical connection with her? While it seems absurd on one level it is also entirely believable that this is the logical next step for our celebrity-obsessed culture.
The only character we really get to know in Antiviral is Syd March, the story's amoral antihero. Syd has been smuggling viruses out of the Lucas Clinic, by infecting himself and extrapolating the corrupted matter off-site, and selling them on the black market. But exposing himself to all these illnesses has begun to take its toll on Syd's body. When he infects himself with a mysterious, untreatable disease that Hannah Geist has contracted he unintentionally launches himself into a race against time to find a cure, while trying to avoid becoming a commodity himself. Though the character initially seems shrewd and opportunistic, bucking the system for his own personal gain, it is clear by the end of the movie that his motivations are far more complicated and personal. Syd's rapidly deteriorating physical condition provides most of the movie's gore and, like his father David, Bradon Cronenberg gives good gore. There are some fantastically gruesome moments in Antiviral that are both squirm-inducing and surreally beautiful. And Caleb Landry Jones makes this sometimes inscrutable character's suffering highly compelling to watch.
I will cop to my own obsessive fangirl proclivities. I tend to like what I like in a way that's all-consuming so stories that explore celebrity culture and the public's relationship to it are fascinating to me. And while I like to think I'd draw the line at actually having myself infected with a virus in order to share a famous person's illness I can understand the slavish, delusional devotion that might drive that sort of impulse. While the actual plot of Antiviral is a fairly standard mystery thriller the ideas that drive the story make it especially unique and intriguing. The fact that none of the ideas presented in it seemed all that far-fetched made it even more compelling to me. And the movie's aesthetics are perfectly suited to the subject matter. Interiors are sleek and sterile, immaculate but largely devoid of personal touches, mirroring the flawless but hollow personas that public figures like Hannah Geist project. The film never explores the actual personalities of its celebrity characters. We only see them as the fans see them: they are perfect, near-mythical human beings, cyphers that the ravenous public clamors for because . . . why? Are they disheartened by or disinterested in their own lives? Is it easier to cling to the artifice of an ideal? Antiviral doesn't provide answers to these questions, it simply observes the behavior and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.