Despite the presence of James Cameron’s long-time producing partner Gale Anne Hurd, Virus is a far cry from the likes of The Terminator and The Abyss. Whereas those movies were cerebral sci-fi with a hint of action, this 1999 blockbuster is just a dumb action film, using a nifty concept to craft a straight-ahead action fiesta without even a hint of nuance, subtlety or complexity. It’s also more or less a mishmash of plot ideas and action scenes from other, superior motion pictures, from The Terminator to Aliens. Add to this the fact that the film was directed by a special effects technician (John Bruno), and that nobody in the cast seems to care about anything other than their paycheque, and the result is a movie that’s easy to hate from a serious critical standpoint. Despite this, Virus is surprisingly entertaining thanks to its top-flight special effects. It’s ninety minutes of brainless fun – nothing more, nothing less. If this sounds appealing, have at it. If not, your loss.
Following a vicious storm in the middle of the ocean, the crew aboard the tugboat “Sea Star” find themselves in trouble, as their vessel is in need of repairs. Led by the borderline psychotic captain, Everton (Donald Sutherland), the crew happen upon a vast Russian vessel adrift in the high seas which is completely deserted, as if everyone suddenly abandoned ship. Sensing the opportunity for riches, Everton seeks to bring the ship back into port, where they can claim a salvage fee and become supremely wealthy. As the crew – which also includes navigator Kit Foster (Jamie Lee Curtis) and engineer Steve Baker (William Baldwin) – explore the ship, they find a sole survivor in the form of scientist Nadia (Joanna Pacula). Nadia warns Everton to shut off the power and leave the ship post-haste, explaining that an alien life form has inhabited the vessel. The aliens see the human race as a virus, and look to extinguish it from the universe.
Narratively, Virus is very similar to 1998’s Deep Rising, another movie which involved a group of unsuspecting characters boarding an ostensibly abandoned vessel in the middle of the ocean to find that the crew were killed by something sinister that cannot be allowed to escape the ship and reach civilisation. But whereas Deep Rising was boosted by colourful writing and great casting, Virus is not as successful; the script is a cacophony of tin-eared, clichéd dialogue, and it takes itself far too seriously considering its preposterous nature. The film is actually based on a series of Dark Horse graphic novels, which were initially written as a screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer before being turned into a comic book due to the limitations of cinema at the time.
A special effects technician, Bruno directs Virus in a workmanlike fashion, opting very much for a simplistic “point and shoot” approach as opposed to something more sophisticated or artistic. As a result, this is a watchable blockbuster with decent production values, but it’s not the blast of pure adrenaline that it might’ve been in defter hands. Certainly, the film is no Speed in terms of pacing or tension. Nevertheless, Virus does boast some spectacular special effects, as to be expected since Bruno also worked on the likes of Titanic and Ghostbusters. Mixing animatronics and CGI, the alien robots are given convincing life here, with the reported $75 million budget being put to good use. The action sequences are fluid, too. However, acting across the board is extraordinary flat. Curtis has admitted in interviews that she thinks the movie is dreadful, and her lack of enthusiasm shows in a very ordinary performance. However, Sutherland does seem to be having a fun time here, hamming it up to extremes. It’s unintentionally hilarious to see Sutherland transformed into an alien cyborg.
Virus is a B-movie at heart, but it was given A-grade production values, reminding us of a bygone era when studios still put time and money into R-rated blockbusters. If this same script was produced in 2013, it’d be a micro-budget SyFy/Asylum movie with unconvincing CGI and a horde of terrible actors. But Virus was made in 1999, and one gets the sense that the crew actually put in an effort to make an entertaining flick. If you enjoyed the likes of Deep Rising, Event Horizon and Deep Blue Sea, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Virus, but it’s by no means an essential watch.