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Movie Credits Buy It!


Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 15 January 1999

virus.jpg (6838 bytes)   Directed by John Bruno

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin,
Donald Sutherland, Sherman Augustus,
Marshall Bell, Cliff Curtis, Levani,
Julio Oscar Mechoso and Joanna Pacula

Screenplay by Dennis Feldman
and Jonathan Hensleigh

What’s a studio hiding when it refuses to schedule a press screening for a new release? In the case of the high tech monster movie Virus the answer seems obvious: the producers realized they had a lifeless dud on their hands. A perfectly serviceable cast and millions of dollars of neat robot effects have been wasted on the least exciting thriller since last summer’s flat-footed film version of The Avengers (which not so coincidentally also didn’t screen for critics).

An energy field in space (a pastel cloud like you’ve a half dozen times in Star Trek movies and TV shows) zaps the Russian Space Station MIR, taking over the equipment and then using their communications array to travel down to a monitoring science ship on the Earth below. (A digression -- what is it with this sudden Hollywood assault on MIR? After the merciless insults lobbed at the station during Armageddon and now this attack you’d think we were pathologically jealous of the Soviets.) Seven days later an ostensibly American salvage tug foundering in a hurricane finds the ship resting in the eye of the storm, a dead in the water, seemingly deserted salvage goldmine. Tug Captain Robert Everton (Donald Sutherland), a desperate, dog-eared old salt drummed out of the military for insubordination and a nasty temper, lights up in dollar signs: he sees millions of dollars in this ghost ship, all legal salvage fees according to maritime law. His navigator Kelly (Jamie Lee Curtis) is dubious; I mean, why the hell did the Soviets abandon a $300 million ship in the middle of the Pacific?

The rainbow crew sets about investigating the craft, looking for survivors and anything else. Engineer Stevie (William Baldwin) and his Cuban partner Squeaky (Julio Oscar Mechoso) discover the power has been completed disabled but manage to bring the ship back to life, and in the process waking the space cloud energy creature. Within minutes the Russian ship’s anchor plunges through the deck of the tug, almost killing Maori crewman Hiko (Cliff Curtis) and stranding the crew on the Soviet vessel. Everton’s number one, Woods (Marshall Bell), a loyal but rather cowardly character with bug eyes and a battered continence, and impatient hothead and former military weapons specialist Ritchie (Sherman Augustus) fill out the crew, but one more is about to join the team. A Soviet scientist survivor, Nadia (Joanna Pacula), is discovered in a state of agitation, obviously terrified by something. She babbles on about "it" and "them" killing the crew and taking control of the ship. Everton will have none of it, but the undeniable evidence of blood stained decks, bullet riddled hallways, and armies of tiny recon robots scuttling around the ship convinces Kelly to listen to her story.

At root Virus is an unimaginative reworking of earlier, better films, notably Alien and, of all things, Deep Rising. The twist is that instead of some slimy monster this motley crew of high seas salvage sailors put their wits up against a creature of pure energy and thought -- "Like lightning that can think," observes on character. This super intelligent being is like living electricity, zipping through the vessel through cables and communications lines and building an army of robotic warriors from the conveniently fully functioning machine shops on the generously equipped science ship. Once the electrical system is back on line these shops whir into a veritable Santa’s cyborg workshop of activity. To this non-corporeal life form, humans are spare parts at best, and a virus on the Earth at worst. Thus while the being goes about exterminating the humans, the rag-tag group battles to keep the ship from docking and allowing the force access to a land based electrical grid where it can continue its holocaust unchecked. Once again the fate of mankind rests in the hands of a shaggy crew of losers and low rent survivors, but luckily for them this mastermind over matter

isn’t quite as quick as his light-speed reputation would have it. For no apparent reason humans are allowed to roam the ship and plot their attack while this being can only think to send giant cyborgs made from a synthesis of robot parts and human flesh and organs after them. It makes for pretty standard monster movie fare -- while the creature was absorbing the ship’s computer he must have tapped the Sci-Fi channel as well.

Virus is derivative to a fault, but more damning is a complete lack of cinematic intelligence or stylish fun. First time director John Bruno, a former special effects supervisor for James Cameron, seems to have learned nothing from his mentor. Bruno’s idea of menace consists of a backlighting his hulking robots as they lumber down dark hallways. It’s an effective image the first time, but after three or four of these things have made such an entrance it doesn’t have much bite. Even worse is his complete waste of the most potentially horrific element of the film: the crew members turned into spare parts for the all cyborg army. When first casualty Squeaky makes his re-entry decked out in robotic headware and bionic limbs (resembling nothing less than a skid row version of the dreaded Star Trek foe The Borg), the scene bursts with possibilities: Stevie seeing his best friend transformed physically and mentally (there’s a line in the trailer that echoes Invasion of the Body Snatchers where Squeaky says "I’ve never felt better" that for no logical reason has been removed from the finished film), the fear of a fate worse than death, the weapon of the enemy wearing the face of a friend. Bruno bobbles it entirely, at once so determined to give us an action scene that he neglects to make us care, and so unimaginative in his direction that the action might as well be a random series of cuts. He shoots everything head on, giving a flat monotony to scene after scene. A nicely framed low angle could do wonders for his robot attacks, and an overhead during a chase could really inject some much needed energy into this otherwise dutifully edited piece. As the film nears its conclusion the cuts come faster, but the narrative drive seems washed overboard in the storm.

There’s not a single character that makes any impression in this film, completely wasting the talents of Sutherland and la Curtis in roles which go absolutely nowhere (if anyone can explain Capt. Everton’s mad turn halfway through the film, I’m all ears). Bruno has no facility with his ensemble -- there’s no chemistry between any of the characters and only Curtis manages to pretend she cares about anyone. Dennis Feldman and Jonathan Hensleigh, who wrote the screenplay based on Chuck Pfarrer’s "Dark Horse" comic, have together been responsible for such big, loud, dumb films as Armaggedon, The Rock, and Species between them (Pfarrer’s own record reveals Navy SEALS and Barb Wire among others), but this paint by numbers exercise is easily their most anonymous work to date. Producer Gale Anne Hurd has shown her savvy talents as a smart script doctor on James Cameron’s screenplays to The Terminator and Aliens, but can work no such magic here.

Nothing -- I mean nothing -- works in this film. Virus is the worst kind of bad film out there. It’s not simply inept, it’s downright dull.

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