Virus (1999) Review – 2/10

Steve…Help get me into a better movie.

‘Virus’ is a movie about how you do not make a movie. While the premise of it is interesting, with an other-worldly alien life form infecting modern computers and causing electronics to become sentient, the execution leaves more than just a lot to be desired. The entire film is centered on nothing more than the, at-times impressive, at other times not-so-impressive, special effects.

We start off with decent production value that slowly degrades as the film goes along. From the miniatures in a bathtub in the beginning with the tug boat, to the less convincing micro-machine robots we see skedaddling along throughout the film, to the end where they fire themselves out of the boat by rocket, which looks and feels quite rushed. There are some neat and interesting effects, such as the first cyborg man they encounter, who they dispatch by cutting his power cord, only for him to resuscitate partially, his head exploding from his body with razor-tipped mandibles, to the skull-headed giant robots. Even the CGI monster at the end was rendered somewhat realistically. That is about it though in terms of positives.

The acting is spotty at best. Donald Sutherland hams it up beyond belief, sometimes acting like a crazed madman, other times acting like a loon, and other times just throwing in the towel and mumbling his way through the script. The only one actually giving it his all, god bless his heart, is William Baldwin. Even Jamie Lee Curtis feels like she does not want to be here, either feeling like she is too good for this role, or that she knows how bad it is and simply needs the money. The rest of the acting is either forgettable or eye-rollingly plain.

We rarely see characters interact outside of plot-related materials. It seems no one is more interested in seeing this film end than the protagonists in-character as they cruise from scene to scene, somehow making a 99 minute long film feel like it is only 70 minutes, spouting off throw-away dialogue that ends up not mattering, and plot points changing from trying to get off the ship, trying to blow up the ship, trying to find other crew mates, to trying to find the central computer. I guess that is one more positive to add to the film, it feels a lot shorter than it actually is. Usually bad films feel longer than they are, but I guess the entertaining gun-fighting and robot effects help speed things along. You do see a lot of flayed skin, dismemberment, and set-destruction throughout.

Going back to the story, the pacing is completely off. We are introduced to how the alien life-form meets humanity, colliding with a space station/satellite, then beaming down to a Russian research vessel, conveniently equipped with automated machining and robotics labs for some reason, until we cut to the people we are going to follow through the rest of the film on a tug boat, pulling cargo. The captain, as we learn, is an idiot who takes his cargo completely uninsured through unofficial boating channels during a massive storm and then gets mad at his crew when they try to save their own lives by attempting to cut the cargo. We then see him contemplate all of what has happened after they make it out of the storm by putting a revolver in his mouth. Are we supposed to pity him, be angry with him, relate with him and his failure? Who the fuck knows.

As previously stated, Baldwin is the real star of the show here, unlike Donald or Jamie Lee, both of which seem to phone it in at times and then chew the scenery during others (although sometimes overacting and scenery chewing can be endearing and entertaining, neither is followed through with in this picture). I will give William Baldwin credit where it is deserved; he is a damn fine actor in that he always gives every role he has 100%, despite his 100% not being up to the same level of other actors, namely his brother Alec. He definitely works for his roles, unlike the other big names on screen here who seem to sleepwalk through theirs. Throughout the film, Baldwin gives some semblance of a character with motivation and desire, even if both of those boil down to “trying to survive”, at least it is something beyond “pissy” or “drunk”. I cannot say much for the other actors, as they seem to only exist as foils to Baldwin, Sutherland, and Jamie Lee. That is to say, they have no character, they are mere extensions of the main characters. Sherman, who plays Richie, is somewhat entertaining to watch, but he plays the character in such a bipolar, manic way, it is hard to take him or his character seriously. He, too, exists solely to create an exit for both main characters to survive.

I cannot overstate how shallow the characterization is in this movie. Take for instance Squeaky, who is friends with Baldwin’s character. For some reason alien to us the viewer, we are supposed to care about what happens to him and care about the relationship between the two of them, despite their screen time before this incident adding up to a whopping minute of footage, maybe a minute and a half. I do not know if what I am about to say is smart, or incredibly stupid, but perhaps this film would have benefited from being longer. Like, a lot longer. Like 20 minutes longer. Sure, the acting from Sutherland and Jamie are downright awful, but the other acting is serviceable to a point where they at least are not the focal point of laughter throughout the film. If we had maybe 5 more minutes of them before getting on the Russian vessel, 5 more minutes of them looking around and interacting on-board the vessel and figuring out for themselves what happened before the Russian girl explodes her mouth all over them with an info-dump, and if we had 5 to 10 more minutes of them being hunted by said robots/cyborgs, we would have a lot more competent of a film on our hands.

Character interaction goes a long way, especially if what you are aiming for is a special-effects-based movie. This is a horror movie after all, and what matters in horror movies is not the special effects, it is the characters that the special effects happen to. Think about ‘The Exorcist’. Would it have been as effective of a movie if we cut out half the out-of-plot characterization of the priest caring for his mother, talking with his friend, and instead had that accumulate to around 2 minutes of footage? Of course not. Action movies are far better at getting away with low characterization and high effects than horror movies are. Horror movies require characters to reflect the dread, intensity, and suspicion of the scenarios and circumstances they find themselves in. We enjoy seeing moments of realization, moments of terror, and moments of shock. Actors love those moments too, as they can over-act their hearts out and have it actually work within the context of the film. ‘The Thing’ took its time with characters and context, setting up all the motivations and desires and it turned out the better. Here, the most we see of characters interacting is completely procedural, lacking in a feeling of immersion or growth as the story progresses.

As for the other aspects of the film, cinematography is very bland and dark. There are a few shots that pull out a foreboding and an unnerving sense of anticipation, but overall it feels flaccid. The score is entirely forgettable. I have no idea what the movie sounded like other than the typical rote music you associate with horror films. As for the thematics, you get the typical “humans are hostile and must be eradicated” akin to ‘The Terminator’, with no further elaboration or exploration of that idea. The most we get is the alien life form talking with the protagonists via computer, telling them humans must be eradicated because they are “noxious, destructive, and invasive”. Real original. They probably should not have even bothered giving the alien motivations, since all it does is flatten the mystery surrounding the creature and makes its simplistic motivations all the less frightening.

In the end what we get is a poorly acted (for the most part) display of special effects atop a behemoth of a mess of non-characters, going-nowhere plot, and stale atmosphere. The non-ending of blowing up the ship with both characters escaping also leaves a sour taste in your mouth. It almost makes you longing of the jump scare/cliffhanger horror movie ending trope. You want something to make the film feel at all interesting, but it just fails to deliver.

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