A big budget action horror film starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland sounds like a safe bet for the box office. So much so that a line of action figures was developed, and the original comic the movie was based on received an updated release with the movie’s artwork in promotion. But then the movie’s release date was bumped, from a cushy summer Blockbuster slot in 1998 to the following January, a month often considered a dumping ground for releases. Dropping into theaters on January 15, 1999, Virus was panned by critics and a commercial failure. To rub salt in the wound, it’s a movie that Jamie Lee Curtis has consistently rebuked in interviews, often referring to Virus as an “all time piece of shit.” While it’s far from perfect, it’s also undeserving of all the vehement hate.
Released almost exactly one year after Deep Rising, Virus continued the trend of following a ragtag team at sea whose boat is destroyed shortly after discovering a much larger sea vessel. One that’s seemingly deserted. In the case of Virus, it’s a salvage crew captained by Robert Everton (Donald Sutherland). When his crew loses their cargo in the middle of a hurricane and the tugboat starts taking on water, they hop on the nearest ship – a Russian research vessel, Volkov. Unbeknownst to them, the Volkov was struck by an alien energy source emanating from the Mir space station just 7 days prior, and the Volkov’s crew since disappeared. Uncovering what happened to them leads to a fight for survival, and all of humanity is at stake.
The biggest flaw in Virus, the reason it’s been so maligned, is that the character and dialogue work can be downright cringe-worthy. William Baldwin plays engineer turned hero Steve Baker, and he doesn’t really have the range to transcend bad dialogue. He’s established right away as the moral superior to Everton’s manic leader corrupted by greed. But with lines like, “You figure it out,” after threatening Everton to see what happens if he ever pulls a gun on him again, well, it doesn’t make him look like the tough guy he’s supposed to be. Luckily, Virus has two additional heroines alongside Baker. There’s Joanna Pacula’s Nadia, the sole survivor of Volkov’s inciting event, who plays double duty as exposition deliverer and secondary heroine with fighting spirit. Then there’s ex-Navy officer Kelly “Kit” Foster, Curtis’ character. Even when starring in a film she hates, she still gives it her all.
The characters spend a lot of time bickering amongst each other, and doesn’t even attempt to subvert the order in which they’ll die. But it doesn’t matter much when the alien lifeform begins to make its appearance. It’s an electrical presence that inhabits tech and crafts robots out of found objects. What it desires most is to wipe out humanity, deemed a virus, and use their flesh for spare parts. It leads to a lot of gooey, gory bits that painfully blends man with machine.
Directed by prolific visual effects artist John Bruno (Poltergeist, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Batman Returns), with effects handled by award-winning visual effects artist Phil Tippett’s studio, Virus is one of the rare ‘90s spectacles that holds up pretty well. Example: I love Deep Rising, but the climactic CG reveal of the sea creature is very, very dated at this point. But Virus is heavily practical, and the CG work blends in. The manborg-like creatures are gory and grim, making for a few fun jumpscares and a lot of bloody sequences.
Like many action horror films that have come before and after it, Virus borrows from notable films like Aliens, The Thing, Hardware, and Event Horizon. It makes some really wacky choices with its character work and does take a while to really kick into gear. But it’s difficult to be bored when Sutherland is playing Captain Everton with this odd blend of suicidal, greedy, and gleefully sadistic. Or when other characters make equally puzzling decisions amidst a human flesh assimilating robot race. And anytime the robot monsters terrorize victims on screen is a highlight. From a perspective of fun popcorn entertainment that showcases special effects, there’s a lot to like about Virus.