Societies preoccupation with “celebrity” is becoming increasingly more and more disconcerting. Seriously, most people know more about the intimate details of the lives of complete strangers than people in their own families, or even their own friends. It’s really bizarre. Without even realizing it we seem to put actors, models, etc on sky scraper high pedestals, and believe that they are somehow better than us; that somehow they are more adequate in almost every respect, because why would they be where they are if they weren’t deserving of it? Stories of their “trials and tribulations” are plastered across magazine covers and “gotcha” web site headlines; and the artifice of these “stories” are lost on most. We know so much about them, and feel like we know them; even though the reality of the matter is much different, and costly. In reality, it posits a much more disconcerting situation. Like a snake eating it’s own tail and then body, until there’s nothing left. It’s a commercially created “self fulfilling prophecy.”
It’s become a business at this point. We are inundated with all this stuff for a pretty obvious reason, and that is to sell you things. Magazines, make-up, food, cars, politicians and even medications all hawked to the public by celebrities. Why do we buy into their endorsements? Why do their opinions seem to hold so much weight with us? Well, because of what I said before, we feel like we know them, and that usually engenders a certain level of trust. The fact of the matter is that these “personalities” aren’t real people; well, not the way they are perfectly packaged for mass consumption, anyways. They are, for lack of a better term, “products” that are being sold to us in the same way that a product is sold to us by the celebrities themselves. Do we want what they tell us they like because subconsciously we want to be more like them, and as a consequence would become closer to them somehow? These concepts and more are what is at the heart of Brandon Cronenberg‘s Antiviral. His last name may sound familiar(Well, his first name might too, but he’s probably not as much of a dick as the person(s) that you know.)…
From the get go, I was pretty interested in this flick, and yes, it did have something to do with the fact that it was written and directed by David Croneberg’s son. I don’t mean for that to sound “reductive,” as I was genuinely interested in what his loins would produce. David Cronenberg is one of my all time favorite directors, and the fact that his son was somewhat following in his footsteps with a “intellectual sci-fi/body horror” flick definitely peaked my interest. Although, after watching the trailer I think I would have wanted to see this movie even without their shared genetics(Yes, I do see the irony here, considering what I’ve been talking about thus far.). It just looked like a good movie, as I’m a fan of dystopian science fiction and cerebral horror.
This movie posits a world where “celebrity obsession” has gotten to a really disconcerting place, and crass commercialization has taken notice. Where as now celebrity endorsements are more about selling you things they like, and their personalities, in this film they are, through corporate affiliation, literally selling you pieces of themselves. Like say, sickness, disease, and even cloned body parts that are sold for people to eat. Yeah, it comes off as gross at it sounds, and I found this aspect of the film to be, superficially, even more disconcerting than the films actual focus of taking on the diseases of celebrities to feel closer to them. It’s this kind of attention to detail, and world building that makes this movie special, in my opinion. It’s not just content with focusing on just one aspect of this “future culture,” and the inclusion of these other facets makes the world of the film feel more real, and engrossing. It gives a full picture of the world that these characters exist in, and shows how far gone society has become.
The characters in this movie don’t really have identities of their own. They have, willingly or not, decided to wrap themselves up in the lives of the rich and famous. They are “obsessed,” in in truest, and most literal meaning of the word. They spend all their money to be injected with celebrity diseases, and all of of their time waiting in lines hoping to get a piece of celebrity “cell steaks” that they can consume, and thus feel closer to the object of their obsession. It feels like it’s a reality that has been built up to, and acts as an almost nightmarish end of the road, considering how society treats “celebrity” today. It’s the extreme of the psychological disposition that this preoccupation brings about.
The movie doesn’t take a hard stance about the “morality” of this culture. Well, at least not in a blatant way. It seems to just let the world that has been created speak for itself, and let the viewer decide how they feel about it. Especially when it comes to society. You are actually made to feel rather sympathetic to the plight of the “customers,” and more often than not you’ll just feel sorry for them, rather than feel angry at them. The movie makes their disadvantage pretty clear, but like I said before it doesn’t tell us; it shows us. The filmmakers trust the intelligence of the audience to make our own decisions about it. I never felt “manipulated” by this film, and in a lot of ways that’s my greatest compliment.
If there is a moral position that this movie takes, I would say it has to deal with corporatism. It seems to posit these corporate folks as evil opportunists that prey on the dumb and weak willed. In my opinion, it’s a fair position, because in the world of superfluous commodities isn’t that what corporations do? They appeal to your self worth through products and how they’ll make you feel; how they’ll actually make you a better person. It’s not all about the corporate head, though, because the wears they peddle aren’t actually sold by them. They need, for lack of a better way to put it, salesmen. A few times throughout the film you see the main character selling the diseases to the customers. The sales tactics that are employed by the main character appeal to the customers feelings of self worth, in the same way that a body wash commercial might do today. They focus on the fact that these celebrities are an allusive ideal that we can only dream of attaining; even their flaws are held up to an ideal standard of being. So, they posit the idea that if you become more like them, even through superficial affectation, you can become closer to this ideal, and thus become a better person, or somehow more “whole.” It’s all pretty sleazy, but isn’t too far from reality. For example, watch this ad for People Magazine, and think about what they are trying to make you “feel.”
Yeah, pretty transparently disgusting, eh? In my opinion, this ad perfectly illustrates the societal themes of the film in a pretty shockingly succinct manner. In a lot of ways, the table for this “hypothetical” society is being set. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I find this kind of stuff to be really disconcerting. Selling “individuality” isn’t exactly profitable, and if money is to be made it has to appeal to the broadest demographic as possible, but one should carefully consider the implications of this dynamic before you just “eat it up,” if you will.
Like I said before, this movie does a really great job of creating a cohesively whole world. It even goes into the “black market” side of selling celebrity disease. In fact this is what actually propels the plot and is, honestly, where the movie kind of lost me. I’m not saying that it deterred my enjoyment, but as the film goes on it gets increasingly obtuse. It has a “mystery/thriller” type of plot. The problem I had with it was that the machinations of the plot are predicated on the minutia involved with the technologies present, and the movie doesn’t explain this stuff with enough clarity to sometimes grasp what is going on. Further, the elements of “corporate espionage” get a little confusing, as it can be hard to tell who is doing what, who works for who, and, finally, who’s interests are being ultimately served.
The one thing that the film does make clear concerning these celebrity diseases is that the company that owns them have exclusive rights to them; they protect their interests by using a form of copyright protection, and render them noncommunicable. So, the main character is smuggling the diseases out of the facility by infecting himself, and then goes home to break the copyright, and then sell them to the black market. So, all that stuff is a little complicated, but is mostly straight forward. It doesn’t end with that though, and as as the film goes on we begin to realize that more and more companies are involved. A virus was created, injected in the “hottest celeb” of the time – subsequently causing her death – and then marketed to the masses as the “hot commodity.” At the end of the film they are able to clear up a lot of the confusion, but I still had some questions about how exactly things went down, and the main characters involvement. To be fair, this might actually be by design; as it engenders conversation in the audience. Also, I only watched the movie one time, and I’m sure a second viewing(Which I’m definitely going to do.) would most likely clear up a few things.
The last act almost seems dream like, in my opinion, and it ceases to be a linear story, or so it seems. It’s a little jarring because the the first two acts are very clearly linear and straight forward. It definitely had me scratching my head a few times, but in a way it added to my enjoyment, as I am excited at the prospect of watching it again and further “decoding” the film. It’s not something we get a lot of these days. There just a plethora of things going on in this movie.
One other sub-textual type of thing that I picked up on was the films “oral motif.” I don’t mean “oral” in it’s sexual connotation, but in a literal “mouth” sense. Over and over again, a point is made to focus on the characters mouths. Whether they are getting herpes injected into their lip, the coughing of blood, or just the characters rubbing their mouths. In my opinion, it would seem it’s bringing the idea of communication, normally done through the mouth(Sometimes through your butt. Farts and stuff… Okay, I’m done.), and juxtaposes that idea with the idea of communicable disease. Like I said, they sell these diseases under the guise that it will somehow make the recipient closer to it’s original carrier. So, if you take “communicable” to mean “conversational,” as in actually making a connection, then I think you’ll see what I’m getting at. It’s just another layer that subtlety gets at the movies themes. It’s a multi-layered affair, and there’s a lot to sink your teeth into.
Even the aesthetic design of the movie reinforces it’s themes. It posits an almost completely sterile world; the only bright spots are the giant posters and adds containing celebrities, and usually has them saying something to the effect of, “I’m just a normal person. I’m just like you,” which makes the obsessed culture even more hopeful in their intentions of becoming closer to them by becoming more like them. Like I said before, the “people” are somewhat empty vessels, and they do everything to fill themselves; even if that just means eating cloned flesh, and taking on their sickness.
The only other aesthetic changes in the film come when we get to peek into the black market underworld. It’s a filthy and grimy place, but the inhabitants aren’t that much different than the sterile world corporate elitists. They are opportunistic in the same way; preying on the lonely, sad and down trodden. The most shocking thing about this to me is that the black market arbiters are completely transparent about their intentions. They don’t posit themselves as “the man fighting” revolutionaries, and just accept the fact that their end game is the same as any of the movies corporate entities. They may be even worse, though, because they are on the “ground,” so to speak, and see the full effects of what they’re doing to people. There’s a certain amount of “plausible deniability” that comes with being in an ivory tower, and having no real connection to the average person. They have no frame of reference; people are nothing moire than stats and numbers. Now, I’m not saying this absolves these people of blame, or anything, but as “evil” as it is, it’s done out of some level of ignorance, and they are able to maintain the idea that they are “providing a service” to people.
Okay, how about a little “nuts and bolts” stuff, eh?
The performances in this movie are pretty fantastic. The films lead, Caleb Landry Jones, is a the real stand out, though. He’s able to get across a lot without having to do too much. He’s a character that is constantly struggling with his humanity, and moral compass, while at the same time trying to come off as a cold, despondent drone. He’s at odds with what he does and Jones gets all this information across with panicked glances and a furrowed brow. It’s an incredibly internalized performance, and just by looking into his eyes you can see “the cogs turning,” if you know what I mean.
I mentioned the aesthetic design in context to the sub-textual themes of the film earlier, but I’d also like to add that it works really well on the superficial plain as well. Even with it’s drab color palette, the movie is never an eye sore to look at, and the sparse use of bright colors add a lot of visual punch when they show up in the frame. Especially in the films dream/nightmare scenarios; often the rich reds of the blood spewing from a characters mouth, or from a needle piercing the skin are juxtaposed with those completely sterile environments that I was talking about earlier. There are some truly grotesquely beautiful moments in this film.
The cinematography of the film, while simplistic, is always completely effective. They make really great use of long and short lenses. I noticed that there isn’t a lot of master shots in this film. Scenes either play out in close ups, or from a distance. I think it added a visual sensory element to the dichotomy of the characters personalities, and I found it to be incredibly effective. I could be totally wrong about this observation, but it’s what I felt on a gut level as I was watching.
Also, I found the pacing of the film a little slow, but never boring, honestly. It’s not a “glacial,” or anything, and it all goes back to how interesting the world they’ve created is. I was always interested to learn more, and every new revelation about the inner workings of this society always kept my interest. In it’s barest sense, this film is a mystery flick, and a lot of the fun of watching it is decoding the mystery before the movie tells you. Having said that, they don’t explicitly explain anything and largely let the world speak for itself. Like I said before, that’s what I found most appealing. It gets a little obtuse at points, but once it would be in danger of losing me something concrete would happen, and thus I was reinvested.
So, to wrap up this clap trap, I’ll say this, whether you’re interest in this film is predicated on the fact that this is David Cronenberg’s son or not, it is totally worth your time. I mean, the guy is really a “chip off the old block,” if you will, and this movie is almost like a fantastic companion piece to his father’s own Videodrome, but I still found a unique voice. He’s definitely treading some of the same intellectual science fiction territory, but he has a style all his own. The fact that there are similarities between the father and son isn’t a detriment, and I really hope people give this flick a chance. It’s original, unique, and I am now eagerly anticipating whatever it is that he’ll end up working on next. This is a “body horror” flick for the new era.