MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Jamie Lee Curtis (Kelly "Kit" Foster), William Baldwin (Steve Baker), Donald Sutherland (Captain Everton), Joanna Pacula (Nadia), Marshall Bell (Woods), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Squeaky), Sherman Augustus (Richie), Cliff Curtis (Hiko)
"Virus," directed by FX guru John Bruno, is another in a long line of recent graphic-novels-turned-movies. This one is, however, perpetually ugly--violent in a grisly kind of way and utterly dark. Not dark as in dark-natured or dark-humored (although it is those things as well), but more along the lines of darkly lit. The action sequences in "Virus" are bathed in an incessant gloom that makes it look like one of the comic book artists who inspired this sci-fi/horror hybrid spilled his ink blotter on the film's negatives.
"Virus" is about an alien superintelligence, an ethereal electrical entity that attacks the Mir Space Station and gets beamed down into the mainframe computer on-board a Russian communications ship. This intelligence then takes over the computer running the ship and uses the machine shops and high-tech robotics on-board to build killer robots that are constructed not only of metal and wires, but of spare human body parts from the entity's many victims.
The Russian ship is found dead in the water by a tugboat crew led by Captain Everton, who is played by Donald Sutherland in such bad fashion that his camp approach had to be purposeful. Everton is slightly unhinged, as he has recently lost his earlier cargo during a typhoon. It is within the calm eye of this typhoon that his crew--which includes Jamie Lee Curtis as Kit Foster, the ship's navigator, and William Baldwin as Steve Baker, the ship's engineer--that the Russian vessel is discovered. There are a few other crew members around, but they are so sketchily drawn and ultimately forgettable that they're not worth describing.
Sutherland and Co. find one survivor of the ship's original crew of 300 strong (there always has to be at least one survivor--otherwise, there wouldn't be anyone to explain what's going on to the new guys). The survivor in this case is Nadia (Joanna Pacula), the ship's chief science officer. Everton doesn't believe her at first, as he is only interested in the maritime law that declares the empty ship deserted, thus the Russian government will have to pay him 10% of the ship's value--$30 million--to get it back.
"Virus" soon shows that it is basically an "Aliens" copycat, with the humans trying to navigate the dark recesses of the ship while the alien intelligence controls a wide assortment of wicked robots intent on killing them. The special effects are plenty effective in these sequences, although it's often so dark it's hard to tell what's going on. Some of the robotic creations are more human than mechanical, with shredded skin dangling over metal arms, and faces half-replaced by "Terminator"-like skulls and glowing eyes. There is a particularly gruesome scene where Everton (for no particular reason) decides he wants to team up with the alien lifeform, and finds himself in the main machine room, surrounded by severed limbs, headless torsos, and all kinds of mechanical hardware. If that's your kind of thing, this is your movie.
The problem with "Virus" for most viewers is not its gore factor. Instead, it's the movie's astounding lack of originality and creativity and its complete dearth of any characters who are even remotely worth caring about. For example, Sutherland's character is a simple caricature of mean-spirited greed; maybe we're supposed to feel joy that he gets what's coming to him in the end, but he's really not interesting enough for us to care. Jamie Lee Curtis never has much of a personality; she tries to come across as the one noble spirit in the bunch, but she feels more like a watered-down version of Sigourney Weaver. Baldwin just huffs and puffs and looks scruffy through most of his role. And the others ... well, they're there, but they don't do anything except die and get recycled into killer mandroids.
"Virus" is really a retread of half-baked ideas and stolen action sequences from other movies--the screenplay by Dennis Feldman ("Species") and Jonathan Hensleigh ("Armageddon," "The Saint") is an exercise in malicious borrowing. (Speaking of originality and lack thereof, I have a bad suspicion that Joel McNeely, the composer of the movie's score, ripped off James Horner. Listen closely when the final bomb is about to go off, and see if it doesn't sound exactly like the last bars from Horner's famous "Aliens" theme.)
"Virus" bears more than a passing resemblance to "Deep Rising," which came out about this time last year. "Deep Rising" wasn't particularly original either, but at least it had a tongue-in-cheek approach to its ridiculous creature-feature material. "Virus," on the other hand, is excruciatingly serious. It also has elements of the disaster movie genre--I kept waiting for the typhoon to turn the Russian ship over and make the film into "The Poseidon Adventure."
Of course, the idea of a killer intelligence taking over a mainframe computer and using robotics to attack humans was done to much greater effect back in 1977 in "Demon Seed" with considerably less gore and fewer special effects. Why? Because it had characters. In fact, the computer in "Demon Seed" was not only a more tangible dramatic presence than the computer in "Virus," it was more interesting than any of human characters in "Virus." With that mind, it's little wonder that, despite all the technical sound and fury, this movie never manages to get the viewer involved.
Copyright © 1999 James Kendrick