In the creepy future of Antiviral, people pay to be infected with celebrity diseases

The conceit at the core of Brandon Cronenberg's surreal, indie film Antiviral is perfect for our celebrity-obsessed era. Instead of buying astronomically expensive DVD box sets or action figures, fans of the future pay to be injected with virus strains that have infected their favorite celebrities. This is a movie that's packed with sexy metaphors. But it's missing the emotional connective tissue required to hold them all together.

Syd is a virus huckster for the Lucas Clinic, which does a brisk business in selling (non-deadly) celebrity diseases to the adoring public. We first meet him when he's taking a sample herpes virus from a popular celebrity, complete with a hideous apparatus involving needles and swabs. The sample will ultimately be amplified and resold to people who will never actually sleep with this starlet, but can at least catch her STD.

There are some seriously insane scenes at the Lucas Clinic, where Syd tempts a young man into buying the herpes by showing him a luscious animated gif of the celebrity, smiling over and over. Gifs show up a lot in this movie — it seems to be the primary way that people consume their icons of choice. At one point, Syd mentions that the company is thinking of introducing a new line of celebrity products, which are basically life-sized gifs of the celebs inside glass cages, repeating the same disturbing phrases like, "Do you want to hurt me?"

But Syd's got bigger things than gifs on his mind. He's got a side business selling pirated viruses on the black market. Every time he harvests a virus, he injects himself before returning to the clinic. Then his black market connection harvests the virus from Syd and sells it onward. Though most critics who saw this film at Cannes last year remarked on the artistry of the movie's fetish for needles and disease, I actually think the most inventive part of Antiviral is its take on piracy.

We learn that Lucas Clinic has invented a kind of DRM for viruses, an anti-piracy system for microbes. Once a Lucas Clinic celebrity disease infects one person, it can't infect anyone else. As you ponder this idea, it becomes clear why there are all these animated gifs everywhere in the film. This is a movie about a future world where memes like gifs can go viral, but actual viruses can't. And companies like Lucas Clinic compete to have exclusive licenses for celebrity virus lines. Looked at in this light, it seems obvious why the name "Lucas" is used here, since Star Wars is one of the most viral ideas in the world and George Lucas' companies tried for decades to maintain complete control of it in every way possible.

Things go wrong when Syd tries to pirate a virus from Lucas Clinic's biggest celebrity, Hannah Geist. It turns out this virus isn't like the others — it may wreck his employer's anti-piracy system, and be a lot more dangerous than any other celebrity disease he's ever injected.

The problem with this film is that Cronenberg isn't content to just show us his bizarro future. He's got to have characters who come in and explain it to the point of absurdity. We are actually subjected to a lecture from one character on the sexual symbolism of infecting your body — as if we couldn't have figured this out from all the images of needles penetrating arms really sloooooooowly, and the scenes with fans whose stuffy noses practically give them orgasms.

So there's the overexplaining problem. And that's coupled with a distinct lack of emotional context for our main character Syd. We see him gargling snot and bleeding, but we aren't permitted any intimacy with his motivations. One could shrug this off as an artistic choice to make our characters into ciphers. But based on all the infodumps we get about everything else, I think this problem is basically a bad narrative choice on Cronenberg's part. He's bursting with ideas — and complicated explanations of those ideas — but he has a hard time with story.

This is the first film from Cronenberg, whose father David Cronenberg is known for freaky body horror movies like Videodrome and The Fly, as well as the intense thriller A History of Violence. It's obvious that Cronenberg shares a lot of the family obsessions, and there are countless images and themes in Antiviral that are influenced (often too much) by his father's work.

Despite some of the narrative problems in Antiviral, I found myself wanting to see what Cronenberg could do if he stopped being a Cronenberg and started being himself. He's got a sharp eye for satire, and gory visual style that's compelling. I hope to see more from him in the coming years.

If you like smart body horror, Antiviral is a must-see, with the caveat that it's got some frustrating flaws.