Virus (1999)

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Ahoy mateys. Virus is one of our first entries into the realm of nautical horror. Having a fantastic cast comprising Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Sutherland, Cliff Curtis, and Billy Baldwin seems like it would be enough of a boon buoy this movie to classic status. Well… maybe not so much. You know how they say that you have to spend money to make money? They certainly spent money on this one. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite make it back, which is to say that they LOST $45 MILLION DOLLARS. Woof. Want to see why the movie did so poorly? It might be evident from the trailer, but if not scroll down for out absolutely spoilerific review below.

Reviewed by: Mark

 
 

Plot Synopsis

The movie opens on a telelink between a Russian naval research vessel the Volkov and the Mir space station. Everything is all happy schmappy until a cloud of space dust turns into lightning and kills everyone on the space station before teleporting itself to the ship via satellite. Yeah.

Enter the crew of the tugboat Sea Star. Captain Everton (Donald Sutherland), navigator Kit Foster (Jamie Lee Curtis), engineer Steve Baker (Billy Baldwin), token black guy who’s an ex-Navy Seal Richie (Sherman Augustus), and a smattering of other typical boat folk are fighting a losing battle with the typhoon that they navigated their way into. As they limp into the eye of the storm they find the now apparently deserted Russian Freighter. Thinking they’ve stumbled on maritime salvage paydirt the crew boards the giant ship and begins the process of exploring the ship looking for survivors.

 
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Once they turn the power back on the Volkov’s automated systems activate mysteriously and drop the ship’s anchor directly through the Sea Star, sinking it and injuring one of the deck hands, Hiko (Cliff Curtis). Really makes you wonder why they would park their fucking boat directly below the other ship’s anchor, but then I’m not a naval expert.

The crew splits up, half to look for survivors and half to take care of Hiko. In the medical bay they are surprisingly ambushed by a Russian woman, Nadia (Joanna Pacula), freaking out and wearing a gas mask. She is distressed that the Volkov’s power was turned back on. In another part of the ship the rest of the crew has a run in with mysterious russian figure with a machine pistol and an itchy trigger finger. They are eventually able to take the thing down and return it to the bridge where everyone else has gathered.

This is more or less the first glimpse we get of the great effects in this movie, as it is revealed that the mysterious gun-wielding stranger is in fact half-man half-robotic monstrosity. Everyone wises up right quick to the whole situation and a plan is hatched to blow up the ship. As they attempt to execute said plan things start to escalate. Two of the crew are turned into these robotic monsters, one is chest bursted rock-em-sock-em-robots style, one is swept out to sea in the storm, and one gets impaled. Needless to say, the plan isn’t exactly executed to perfection.

 
Ending up waste deep in a pool of gasoline and blood while being chased by the Murderbot 9000 is generally a solid indicator that your plan isn't going well.

Ending up waste deep in a pool of gasoline and blood while being chased by the Murderbot 9000 is generally a solid indicator that your plan isn't going well.

 

Now the only two left alive, Steve and Kit retreat to the missile room (all good research vessels have a missile room) to execute Plan B. Turns out plan B is “attach yourself to a missile and launch yourself the fuck out of there while setting off a bigass pile of explosives.” The two escape just in time as the massive killer robot breaks its way into the missile bay.


What the Movie Does Right

The setting here is one that really makes the movie shine. Being trapped inside the eye of a storm on a deserted ship is actually a fairly ingenious way of controlling resources. They actually shot on a real ship that was mothballed by the US Navy, and I think it worked well in their favor. The ship feels real, claustrophobic, and uninviting. On top of that the additions that are made to the set look great, and improve the world that the movie is able to visually build.

Speaking of visuals, let’s talk about the effects. Holy shit there is some good practical in this one. The movie is directed by John Bruno, who is otherwise known for working in the special effects department. On top of the incredibly built sets, the monsters look impeccable. The robots themselves were actual mechatronic feats of engineering. The half-men were a combination of props and six hours of makeup. When they blow up the ship at the end, that is an actual ship blowing up. No wonder this movie cost $75 million to make.

 
Look how cuddly it is.

Look how cuddly it is.

 

What the Movie Does Wrong

The script is awful. The characters are generally unbelievable, particularly Captain Everton. They fight over stupid shit and they don’t react the way normal humans would. Beyond that though, the true issue here is the dialogue. It stinks. At one point Bill Baldwin’s character is making a threat and he says “You ever put a gun in my face again.” That’s the end of the sentence. It just stops. He’s asked “you’ll what?” and his follow up is “you figure it out.” Was that an actual note in the script that was accidentally written in as a line? Like was John the intern actually supposed to figure it out, but forgot about it? Here’s another exchange:

“How bad is it?”
“Bad.”
“How bad?”
“We’re sinking.”

“That’s bad.”

...what the fuck is that? Who was paid to write that? Did they pass high school?

I’d also like to circle back on the effects. The practical ones are great. The ones they couldn’t quite make work practically they cleaned up with CG, and since it was the late 90s that stuff looks like shit. There are scenes with the giant murder robot moving around in CG that look like it’s a South Park-esque paper cutout sitting on top of the film. Beyond that, the sound team really went overboard with their use of pre-recorded sound bites. There’s a screaming robot sound that is used seemingly every three minutes or so. I mean, I guess robots can probably pretty reliably reproduce sounds, but it still gets a little grating after a while.

 
Pictured: 1990s space lightning.

Pictured: 1990s space lightning.

 

The last thing isn’t actually a problem with the movie, but I didn’t know where else to throw it in. They made a Virus video game to go along with the film, and it was terrible. Sure, there are excuses, it was the 90s, all the other movie studios were doing it, robots are neat… it doesn’t make the game any better. Just look at this shit:

 
 

Ratings (1-10)

Story: 4 - The bare bones scaffolding of this movie’s story is actually pretty good. Ghost ship, bigass storm, cyborg aliens… all good things. Past that though, you get a unbelievable characters doing stupid and unrealistic things while saying stupid bullshit dialogue.

World-Building / Immersion: 5 - The world building is the good part of the score. Shooting on an actual naval vessel was a good move, and the set design also helps quite a bit to set the scene. Unfortunately, this movie just isn’t immersive. I’m not going to double count the shitty dialogue here, but it certainly doesn’t help the situation. Beyond that, there’s some serious issues with pacing and intensity. What good is having murderous robots if only one person is actually killed by them?

Scare-Factor: 3 - If you are thalassophobic or otherwise afraid of boats this score might be higher. Aside from that the scare factor here mostly comes from how gruesome the monsters look and some creative shots at the beginning of the movie. I can say for certain that seeing this movie as a 12 year old really spooked me, but I did not have the same feeling on my second time around.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 9 - Despite its other failings, this movie looks incredible. The practical effects, props, set design, makeup, and robotics look phenomenal. This is damn close to perfect effects. Unfortunately, they went and sprinkled in some terrible CG lightning and robot movement. Also, minor quibble, but those sound effects can be really obnoxious.

Overall: 3.5 - This movie could be incredibly fun to watch if you hit it at just the right time with just the right mood. Outside of that though, this movie is just a bland shambling waste of talent with pacing problems. There are better nautical horror movies.