Like almost everyone in 2020, the filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg is in a “difficult position” with technology. Unlike the rest of us, he’s coping with it by making a gross-out science fiction movie.
“On one hand, I love [technology],” Cronenberg, 40, tells Inverse. “On the other hand, I think there’s dangers. The death of privacy, the manipulation of people through technology.”
Speaking to Inverse a few weeks before the 2020 election, Cronenberg, son of horror legend David Cronenberg, cites Russian influence over U.S. elections as “ways we’re beginning to learn people can be manipulated en masse.”
“We’re only just learning what it is to be such an online society,” he says.
Possessor is that piece of gross-out sci-fi, one that’s critically acclaimed and available now on Digital HD. In it, Cronenberg grapples with identity and technology in ways only members of Clan Cronenberg are capable.
While father David ventured into the dark side of the VHS era in his 1983 classic Videodrome, son Brandon takes on an updated technology, something like a mix of the brain-computer interfaces discussed by Elon Musk with his Neuralink project and Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker.
In Possessor, skilled assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) gets close to her targets by artificially taking over the bodies and consciousness of other people in their orbit. (Think of it like “hacking” into another human being.) But in her latest assignment, the consciousness of her host (Christopoher Abbot) fights back to reclaim his stolen body, leading to a literal battle of mind, body, and even soul.
In addition to timely fears about technology, the beginning of Possessor originates in some “fairly trivial personal experience” felt by its director.
“I was going through a period of flux, and as a result I was having trouble seeing myself in my own life,” Cronenberg says. “I was sitting up in the morning feeling as though I were in someone else’s life and had to scramble to construct some character who could function in that context.”
Cronenberg used his existential crisis to tell the story of Possessor: “I wanted to make a film about a character who may or may not be an impostor in their own life, to explore how we construct characters and narrative just to function as human beings.”
Struggling to find identity in one’s own body is one thing. Constructing an identity online is a whole other ordeal, and it can feel as icky and gooey as Possessor’s most arresting visual sequence.
“I wanted to communicate, in a visceral way, losing your body and reforming in someone else’s,” Cronenberg says of his movie’s blinding “operation” sequence, accomplished entirely with practical stop-motion effects. “Dan Martin, our makeup effects, was responsible for the melting heads.”
Cronenberg also worked with cinematographer Karim Hussain to come up with “practical, in-camera trickery” using a mix of video feedback, lenses, and gels to create what Cronenberg calls “textures” on-screen.
“It had to have a lot of impact as a major tipping point in the narrative,” he says. “It also needed to establish an aesthetic that could be carried on through her breakdowns. It’s a very subjective film, very internal, and I wanted to run with that to give it a visceral sense of what she was experiencing.”
While Cronenberg’s movie isn’t about the complexities of social media (at least not in obvious style à la an episode of Black Mirror), the filmmaker believes that humans barely have a grip on its rapid evolution. He thinks we’ll never catch up to the speed of the social internet.
“We’re a transitional generation, or at least I am,” he says. “I was born before everyone had the internet in their pocket all the time. And that really changes us. It changes what a human society is, and it’s changing very quickly. We don’t understand where we’re going.”
While critical comparisons to his father are inevitable, especially given their similar taste in body horror, Brandon says he doesn’t think about his father’s work when he makes movies of his own.
“I guess I’m too close to him to be influenced by it,” he says. “My films are just honest expressions of my interests and impulses. What makes a ‘Brandon Cronenberg film’ isn’t for me to say.”
Still, there’s unshakable DNA shared between the two as artists. In 1999, David Cronenberg said during the release of his sci-fi thriller Existenz: "I think technology is one of man's most basic acts … It might well attack us. But if it does, it's us attacking us, because it is a full expression of human creativity and inventiveness and self-consciousness.”
Two decades later, Brandon gives Inverse a more succinct version. “You can love technology and have a justified anxiety about it.”
Warning: Spoilers for Possessor ahead.
Audiences who finish Possessor may be left scratching their heads about the ending. Cronenberg is resistant to spill everything, but he does offer a glimpse into what and where he’s getting at with his film’s arresting end.
At the end of Possessor, Vos and her assignment leader Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) again debrief, this time with Vos having learned her husband and son were also “possessed” by other agents. Now, when Vos expresses no empathy for killing a butterfly in her youth, Girder subtly smirks.
Was that Girder’s plan all along, to sharpen Vos into a colder killer?
“I’m glad you caught that,” Cronenberg says when I point this out. “I put that in the film expecting nobody to get it, to be a subtle detail, but people did and it speaks to Girder’s influence over Vos and Vos’ transformation.”
Cronenberg adds he doesn’t want to get into specifics for obvious reasons. “Although I had a very particular sense of the narrative and the characters, part of the execution of the film was designed to leave space for people to interpret differently.
“If I answer too many of those interpretive questions, I’m precluding the possibility of anyone discussing it, which I would hate.”
Adds Cronenberg, “In a couple years I can tell you everything. Right now, I’d like for people to explore.”
Possessor is available now on Digital HD. It will be released on Blu-ray on December 8.