Virus (1999)

D: John Bruno
S: Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin

Not bad sci-fi yarn derivative of a dozen others but buoyed by excellent special effects and special effect designs from both aging masters of the art and their progeny. Directed by industry veteran John Bruno, the film numbers among its vast array of technical personnel the almighty Phil Tippet, whose characteristically physical and detailed stop-motion style makes a welcome return to the genre and provides the film with some splendidly brutal and satisfyingly authentic action scenes, even if most of them take place in semi-darkness and don't have much to do with the plot.

A ragtag crew of seafaring hauliers caught in a Typhoon happen upon a gigantic state-of-the-art ship floating derelict in the eye of the storm. They board her and find signs of chaos and destruction, but not of life. Not yet. After power is restored they find that there are strange mechanical rattling noises and things moving at the corners of their vision, and in the way of such situations, people start to go missing one by one...

Hokum from the graphic novel created and written by Chuck Pfarrer (which itself reads like a serviceable storyboard). Pfarrer collaborated on the film script, and has expanded upon his original four part mini-series to add some interesting twists which unfortunately don't follow through and develop as well as they might. Some promising ideas revolving around the amoral captain played by Donald Sutherland and the gradually evolving intelligence of the malevolent force controlling the ship take second place to a series of violent confrontations between people and machines which become increasingly heated and lethal. The film suffers from several narrative lapses in an attempt to propel the action, leaping from stalk and chase to stinger with often less than the required minimum of exposition. Solid turns from a game cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Joanna Pacula and William Baldwin help (the female roles are fairly prominent, indicating the hand of producer Gale Anne Hurd in the wings), but it's still nonsense and it takes itself a tad too seriously to be quite as much fun as the recent and not dissimilar Deep Rising.

Its most obvious predecessor is the near-forgotten chamber sci-fi horror Saturn 3, but its various conceits can be traced across a virtual history of the genre, including the likes of The Thing (both versions) and recent machine and cyborg opuses like Runaway, Robocop, and Star Trek: First Contact. Its familiarity does hurt it, and probably accounts for the tendency to abandon all pretence of depth or narrative progression in favour of visceral spectacle. On this level it does not rise to the giddy heights of the best of its predecessors, but it does mount some nice suspense scenes in the early stages and it is fun to watch the bio-mechanical beasties trashing the interior of the ship beyond all logic just to get hold of some troublesome human spare part donors.

Virus is mildly nasty, but generally entertaining for those predisposed to its particular brand of silliness. There are some thematic questions in there if you're interested in pursuing them, but it is far from being a key text of end-of-millenium techno-evolutionary paranoia. It is pure formula with the necessary level of technical skills to keep it going, and while this won't make it a classic, it does allow it to fill out the middle rank above half-baked low budget items but below films with genuine intelligence and ideas which are properly worked through.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.