Antiviral presents a parallel society in which the most socially damaging implications of fanatical celebrity-worship have been allowed to reach their fullest expression. For a price, fans can be injected with viruses that have been directly harvested from the bloodstreams of popular media personalities. If someone wishes to feel a (latently sexual) connection with, say, a leggy blonde they’ve always admired on TV, all they have to do is go to their nearest clinic and purchase the herpes said blonde was reported to have contracted the prior week.
For about 30 minutes, Antiviral exudes a sick charge. Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s bluntly metaphorical premise is purposefully off-putting and nasty, and it’s just palpable enough to feel subversive in this age in which a celebrity’s every passing whim is magnified for our delectation. To call Antiviral angry would be an understatement, as it’s positively hostile, and Cronenberg initially shows a promising imagination for the details and contours of the world he’s proposing. The clinics’ virus merchants, for example, simultaneously resemble used-car salesmen and paparazzi. When hustling a client, these ciphers trade in the sorts of encouragingly banal sales tactics with which we’re all greatly familiar. When meeting a celebrity to obtain a new virus, they’re often required to loiter around in posh waiting rooms in a fashion that will be immediately familiar to any writer whose ever tried to interview, well, anyone.
But Antiviral is a one-joke movie—a good joke, yes, but Cronenberg’s agenda clouds the clarity that’s needed to fully deliver the punchline. The filmmaker wastes no time in asserting his ultimate view, which is that celebrities are offered as sacrificial lambs to a society that parasitically feeds on them. One doesn’t need to reach too far for this conclusion either, as a powerful clinic official at one point even claims, hauntingly, that “celebrities aren’t people, they’re a group hallucination.” In the film, anyone who isn’t a celebrity is a vampire and a cannibal, a notion that Cronenberg repeatedly emphasizes with intimate images of blood-splotched lips and needles in veins. One character even briefly conceals his identity with a black glove in a fashion that recalls Dracula’s cape.
Cronenberg misses a key distinction in his outrage though: that the celebrity-fan relationship isn’t parasitic, but symbiotic, as celebrities play an active role in their presentation to the public as a commodity, exploiting consumer curiosity (and envy) in an effort, one assumes, to achieve and maintain a certain level of adulation and privilege. Cronenberg’s satirical vision ultimately feels puny because it offers a scapegoat (consumers who aren’t celebrities) instead of the more satisfying acknowledgment that everyone’s culpable in the 24/7 all-purpose exploitation of the mass-media machine.
Antiviral hasn’t been fully considered in formal terms either. The film’s all chilly whites and lurid reds, and while that scans as reflective of a profession that harvests viruses for a living, the look’s ill-suited to conveying the allure that draws people to celebrities to begin with. Antiviral is never sexy or sensational, and it never captures the soap-operatic thrill that one gets from nosing into a celebrity’s sex life or drug problem. We’re never given reasons why the famous people in this film are famous either, and they’re never allowed to register as anything but pretty thematic bullet points. That’s arguably the point, but it’s also indicative of a hypocrisy as well as a dramatic failure. It’s hard to mourn the dehumanization of someone who’s never allowed to be human.