How Edward Snowden Influenced Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor

Trying to break out from the foundation laid by a filmmaker responsible for some of the most lasting body horror films ever made is not an easy task, but Brandon Cronenberg has shown that he has the stuff. Although I'm not huge on "Antiviral," which sees Caleb Landry Jones as a clinician who injects paying customers with sterilized diseases of their favorite celebrities, it's an admirable debut feature that shows he has a pulse on the grotesque commodification of the human body. His latest film, "Infinity Pool," which /Film's Chris Evangelista calls a "debauched nightmare vacation into hell" in his review, takes this idea even further.

Smack dab in the middle of his filmmaking career, however, is "Possessor," which not only feels like an excellent companion to his father's work, but a sci-fi horror thriller that creates its own monstrous legacy. Taking place in an alternate 2008, assassinations are carried out from miles away from the intended target, as parasitic technology latches onto an unsuspecting person until it feels that it must discard its fleshy vehicle, killing them in the process. But Cronenberg's film shows what happens when the two are forced to confront one another.

Elite assassin Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is tasked with taking out a very powerful CEO (Sean Bean), in addition to his daughter (Tuppence Middleton), so that their client can swoop in for the power grab. In order to carry out the mission, she possesses the body of the daughter's boyfriend, Colin (Christopher Abbott), who puts up more of a fight than Vos could have anticipated. While the technology to make something like this possible thankfully doesn't exist, Cronenberg used a more contemporary example of body hacking to shape the concept.

'We're all really hackable right now'

The uneasiness that comes with being watched, while not exactly a new concept, dramatically shifted in 2013, when former NSA intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked critical documents that proved the existence of invasive surveillance programs in the United States. One of the more sinister discoveries was that of corporations implementing programs for the specific function of data mining. Brandon Cronenberg was watching this all go down while assembling the idea for "Possessor," seeing it as an avenue to explore the paranoia of outside eyes looking within (via The New York Times):

"We're all open to invisible influence in a way that previously would have sounded like conspiracy theories but now sound like open truths. The Snowden leaks happened early in script development. That was the root of a lot of the technology satire [in 'Possessor'], but it's become related to behavioral control."

This makes a fascinating parallel with Colin, as we get to see what he does at the company, which specializes in data mining. He wears VR goggles that make him look like a massive fly. In the virtual workspace, Colin's job is to leer in on people and make observations based on the kinds of products that can be seen in the peripheral view of their cameras. In "Possessor," the invasion of privacy is business as usual. It's the face of the company. The art of watching creates a bit of a psychic overload with Vos in the driver's seat, confronted with someone who makes a living through their own voyeuristic gaze. You can tell Cronenberg was truly rattled by Snowden shattering the illusion of isolated individuality.

A new kind of possession

Although different in presentation, Colin's job is largely no different from what corporate systems are already doing. If I search for something on Amazon, it usually won't be long until I'm haunted by an advertisement on another website with that exact item. We've gotten used to our lack of privacy, as there's no real way to avoid it in a technologically-dependent landscape.

In "Possessor," we're shown glimpses of what these corporations are capable of, but less so the political ramifications. For all we know, the folks who pay Vos to do what she does best could be facing their own external scrutiny, but from the film's perspective, they're able to carry on without a hitch to stop them. Brandon Cronenberg's "Antiviral," for example, also shows a world where the unimaginable, such as synthetic celebrity meat, is as commonplace as so many other business practices.

Combine that with the haunting nature of your body being contorted to perform bloody acts of violence, and you get a disturbing paranoia thriller that feels especially suited for the times. In an era where the legal nature of bodily autonomy is being determined by outside forces intent to harm, "Possessor" holds an even greater power.

"Possessor Uncut" is currently streaming on Hulu and Kanopy.