(Original post date: 5/3/19)
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF BLOOD, GORE, AND VIOLENT ILLNESS. VIEWER/RESEARCHER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
In the Spring of 2017, my sister and I attended MantiCon, the official convention of military sci-fi author, David Weber. I wasn’t as interested in him as she was, but it was still a great chance for us to spend time together, and there were plenty of other writers for me to chat with and books and memorabilia for me to geek out over. When I asked her later how she liked meeting one of her literary heroes, she told me that he was actually a really nice guy and a joy to talk to. I felt some relief at this because, to be honest, I had been a bit worried. I couldn’t help thinking that this whole trip could have been ruined for her had Weber treated her or his other fans poorly. It really is incredible how easy it is to forget that the celebrities we idolize are just as human as anyone else. So just what on earth is it that makes a person want to pay $31,000 for John Lennon’s tooth, or $28,000 for a grilled cheese supposedly bearing the image of the Virgin Mary? (I wish I was making that up.) Sad enough this happens in real life. But if the technology represented in this film actually existed—Heaven PLEASE forbid—, would it really be that surprising if somebody out there wanted to take advantage of it, depraved though it is?
In an alternate near-future America, celebrity mania has reached unprecedented heights as advancing technology has allowed the public to indulge ever more in the lives of their idols. Now a new industry that profits off this obsession has established itself in the mainstream. Whenever a celebrity falls ill, trained individuals from specialized corporations, like the Lucas Clinic, harvest their infected DNA and then inject it into the bodies of paying customers so that they may suffer as their icons do. Enter Syd March, one of the Lucas Clinic’s finest employees. When not pitching the hottest and latest viruses to eager clients, he’s busy making extra cash on the side by smuggling samples within his own body and selling them on the black market. And so, when Hannah Geist, the most popular and lucrative host in Lucas’ collection, contracts a never-before-seen disease, Syd loses no time in infecting himself with her tainted blood. To his surprise and alarm, this one proves deadly, absolutely ravaging his body with its excruciating and horrifying symptoms. But Syd’s true suffering is only just beginning when he learns that Ms. Geist has apparently died from the illness, making him the next best thing available to the masses ravenous for her now priceless samples. Now the target of business rivals and piracy groups alike, Syd must solve the mystery behind the virus and cure himself before he is consumed by either it or the ruthless entrepreneurs on his tail.
The film’s director, Brandon Cronenberg, may not be familiar to mainstream audiences, but his father very much is. One of the pioneers of body horror cinema, David Cronenberg’s best known films, though highly controversial due to their excessive gore and violence, explore numerous mature and visceral topics through the science fiction and horror genres. For example: the fear of the human and/or female body in The Brood; the devastating mental and social impacts of media consumption in Videodrome; and the terrifying inevitabilities of disease, terminal illness, and old age in his 1986 remake of The Fly, just to name a few. His son’s directorial debut similarly makes biting commentary on a less-than-savory aspect of modern American culture, an issue that’s become more relevant than ever in the 21st century as internet and social media have exploded in scope and popularity.
Brandon’s inspiration for Antiviral came in two parts. The first occurred during an intense fever dream brought on by a viral infection. In a state of delirium, he obsessed over the idea that what was now inside his own body came from inside another person’s body and thought of the strange intimacy of such a connection. Afterwards he realized that celebrity-obsessed fans actually epitomize this idea in the way they fetishize the body. He was further inspired by an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, in which actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was ill at the time, remarked during her interview that she’d infect the entire audience if she sneezed, resulting in said audience bursting into applause.
Just think about that for a moment.
SYD: (As he prepares the injection for Edward Porris.) Which side do you want it on?
EDWARD: (Uncertain.) I haven’t decided.
SYD: (Conversationally.) Most people want it on the left side. If she kissed you, it’d be on the left side.
EDWARD: If she kissed me?
SYD: (Leans in toward Edward and points to his right lip.) Ms. Geist is infected here, to the right of her mouth. (Points and moves his finger at Edward’s lips as he goes on.) Now, if she kissed you, it’d spread to your left side, around here. On the left, it’d be like she gave it to you in person.
EDWARD: (With breathless excitement.) Oh, yes, I’d like the left side.
Brandon incorporates this distorted point of view into numerous aspects of the film. Take the visuals. The coloring is pale and washed-out, adding to the lifeless tone. Moreover, the clinics are a spotless, almost painfully blinding white, mixing the unnatural sanitation of a hospital with the cold chicness of a fashion industry office building. The only color that really stands out at all is red; shades that aren’t bright and vivid, like for the blood, are often brownish and muddy, emphasizing the ugly reality of filth underneath the “clean” façade of fame. Another important symbol is the flower, particularly the tulip, the logo of the Lucas Clinic. There is a real-life phenomenon in which tulips, normally solid-colored when healthy, are infected by a virus and “broken”, resulting in a streaked multicolored appearance. Far from being rejected as a biological mutation, their attractiveness has since prompted flower enthusiasts to intentionally breed them to this day, though they are much more fragile. This is not unlike the film’s consumers “breaking” themselves with human pathogens for the sake of superficial beauty, no matter how fragile they become:
LUCAS: (Holds up a yellow tulip whose petals are streaked with red.) Did you know that healthy tulips have solid-colored petals? The stripes on this flower are caused by a viral infection.
SYD: I’d heard that, yes.
In this universe, bodily fetishism is not only advertised as a pleasurable pastime, it’s justified as a state of transcendence to the point of being its own religion. Much like how we are taught to take the universal teachings of bible stories or fairy tales to heart in order to lead fruitful lives, so too do these otherwise rational, law-abiding people glean their own meaning according to the will – and appearances – of their favorite superstars. That being said, we never learn how or why these celebrities are famous in the first place. This blatant lack of depth brilliantly mirrors our sad reality that many people don’t care about a celebrity’s actual talents and achievements (assuming they have any), regardless of their genius or their stupidity, so long as the stars keep shining on camera:
T.V. HOST: We’re talking to Mr. Dorian Lucas, founder of the Lucas celebrity services clinic. Mr. Lucas, how do you respond to critics who say the disease you’re really selling is a cultural one?
LUCAS: That’s ridiculous.
T.V. HOST: Do you not agree that the mania surrounding celebrity is reaching an unhealthy level?
LUCAS: (Shrugs.) No, I don’t.
T.V. HOST: So these people are really so deserving of our attention? In your opinion, does Aria Noble deserve to be famous?
LUCAS: Let me stop you right there. Deserve to be famous? What does it mean to deserve to be famous? Anyone who’s famous deserves to be famous. Celebrity is not an accomplishment, not at all. It’s more like a collaboration that we choose to take part it in. Celebrities are not people, they’re group hallucinations.
T.V. HOST: Surely it’s naïve to imagine that your clients think the same way.
LUCAS: Really? Naïve? My clients are intelligent adults from all walks of life, all ages, and they find meaning in all the stories around them. They choose to come to me because they want to feel more connected to those faces, to those people that they see in the magazines and on television, and their lives are much richer for it.
Such is the case of our antihero. If the public are the disciples of this church of glamor, then Syd is its high priest. Like any good businessman, Syd is smart, cool, and confident, taking his work very seriously while clearly enjoying every minute of it. But he puts a whole new spin on the concept of working oneself to death. His apartment, though not as fancy as the clinic, is just as disturbingly white. He often has a thermometer in his mouth and his refrigerator has literally nothing in it but prepackaged egg salad sandwiches and bottle upon bottle of orange juice, all traditional means of healing that seem strangely feeble and laughable considering he constantly exposes himself to multiple diseases much more serious than the common cold. But even before he’s reduced to using a cane just to walk, he is an old man, frail-looking, with pasty skin and dull eyes, an appearance and role very well executed by actor Caleb Landry Jones, who was only twenty-two at the time. Syd seems all the more zombified and oppressed whenever he is all but swallowed up by the enlarged, looming photos of Hannah Geist that take over every shot they share, like a fly before a god. Nevertheless, he has no regret whatsoever in devoting his very being to her; his voice, already soft and raspy, becomes even more so when he delivers his sales pitches, an edge to his speech that borders on lust:
SYD: (As he and Edward Porris watch silent video of Hanna Geist.) Breathtaking. I understand your fascination with her. I understand completely. (Sighs.) She’s perfect somehow, isn’t she? More than perfect. More than human. Her eyes seem to reach . . . right beneath your skin and touch your organs and touch your stomach, your lungs. Gives me the shivers.
I once read a very intriguing Youtube comment for the film’s trailer that said Hannah Geist’s full name roughly translates to “Holy Spirit”. Further research told me that the name “Hannah” means “favor” or “grace” in Hebrew, and “Geist” in German can be translated into such words as “ghost”, “mind”, or “spirit”, depending on context. (The only more appropriate surname would be “Zeitgeist”, but that would be way too obvious.) Interestingly, the context in which Edmund Spenser uses the word geist in his 1590 epic poem, The Faerie Queene, is suggestive not so much of a ghost or apparition as the latent mind of one still alive.
Compared to the works of his father, especially those of the 1980’s, Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral isn’t as over-the-top in its gore or as trippy in its visuals and effects. But I think this works in its favor, because nor is it as far-fetched in its plausibility. Its use of believable science and violence that’s somehow both extreme and subtle at the same time to offer intelligent insight on people’s already very real and unhealthy infatuation with the rich and famous makes this film all the more ominous. And there are times, in fiction and otherwise, when the only way to make a point and make it stick really is to get right in people’s faces . . . or maybe even deeper than that.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Dub Trippin” - MK2
“Medusa” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
All other sound clips are from Antiviral (production by Alliance Films, Rhombus Media, Telefilm Canada, and TF1 International; distributed by Alliance Films [Canada])
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