Brandon Cronenberg's auspicious debut feature is a visually stunning, compelling science fiction story that asks the question, "How far would you go to own a piece of your celebrity crush?" Directing from his own script, the young Canadian takes a decidedly cynical view of the cult of personality in this sci-fi paradigm shift -- "Antiviral" isn't necessarily showing us what will be in the future but what could be now as it appears to be set more in the present day.
The film opens in a pristine medical facility where a desperate young man, Edward Porris (Douglas Smith in a too-brief but important establishing role), is about to be injected with a live virus taken from his favorite superstar. Being bedridden with the same illness infecting the woman of his desire is the ultimate autograph. The shot is administered by Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a strictly professional, unemotional clinician who knows not to take his job home with him. Of course, everything is not as it seems and March becomes embroiled in a mystery that pulls in the viewer like a syringe drawing blood.
The cast is focused on a small handful of characters. 22-year-old Caleb Landry Jones (Sean Cassidy/Banshee of "X-Men: First Class") is in virtually every shot, undergoing a total physical and emotional transformation that's almost painful to watch, reminiscent of the award-winning performance turned in by Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia." His masterful characterization of Syd's downward spiral is breathtaking and central to the picture's potency. The iconic Malcolm McDowell is satisfyingly engaging as Dr. Abendroth, in a role that stands proudly with anything he's done. As Hannah Geist, the gorgeous object of men's desires, Sarah Gadon is a heartbreaker. Naive diva one minute, vulnerable victim the next, Gadon provides much of the heart and soul of "Antiviral" in a film otherwise devoid of color, literally. Joe Pingue and Nicholas Campbell are notable in support.
"Antiviral's" narrative is curiously fascinating, to be sure, but this is a film to examine more on the surface the way an old-fashioned family doctor can tell what ails you by looking at your skin. The highly stylized production is best appreciated by those enriched by a leisurely walk through an art museum. Every frame is like a painting, with lush cinematography and score that can only be effective when director, DP, composer, editor, and the entire visual team work in lockstep, resulting in a brilliant vision executed with highly disciplined precision.
Much of March's day is set in the clinic and his home, which mirrors his workplace in its cold sterility. The color palette is nothing but black and white. Lighting is oversaturated with characters bathed in bright white, giving the outward appearance of good health that belies the reality of what literally lurks beneath the skin. The outside world is like a parallel universe, where dirt and grime cover a worn out, used landscape as if diseased itself.
Cinematographer Karim Hussain ("Hobo with a Shotgun," one of my 2011 Sundance Film Festival Top 4) goes against the hand-held trend with stationary camera throughout much of the movie. These tripod shots often feature perfectly centered props and sets following the rule of 3s -- left, center, and right objects perfectly balanced with the action in the middle of the field of view. Many frame-within-a-frame shots continue this classic visual style as the viewer peers through doors and windows, with straight lines and rectangular shapes filling the screen. It's a refreshing break with tradition although, ironically, it's a look established long ago in sci-fi classics like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Much is owed to editor Matthew Hannam for the patient pace of the picture. E.C. Woodley's haunting electronica score is filled with biologically-inspired rhythms that reflect the throbbing hearts and mechanical drone of a scientific setting.
Viewers are cautioned not to underestimate the profound importance of the camera-work and visual effects. The look of "Antiviral" is as much, or more, responsible for the film's impact than the script, a notion which may be lost on those simply trying to figure out the plot and following the dialogue. This is a feast for the eyes and ears, not just the mind.
Brandon Cronenberg proves himself a welcome and worthy addition to the cinematic stage with "Antiviral," a delicious visual showcase and emotionally satisfying, albeit scathing look at one of the perils of modern society.