In 1999, No One Caught This VIRUS

Brian laughs about how much money Universal liked to waste 15 years ago.

One of my favorite things to do when I'm procrastinating (or merely killing time at work waiting for something) is to load up any random weekend on BoxOfficeMojo and then keep hitting "Next weekend" to see how movies did week after week. It's easy to forget that much hated movies like Patch Adams were not only monster hits, but remained a more popular choice than other, better films that it was competing against, even after 5-6 weeks of release (more than enough time for people to come to their senses). Anyway, one time I ended up in 1999 and noticed something pretty amusing: the year produced an inordinate number of movies that were seemingly greenlit by maniacs. How else to explain spending 65 million on an adaptation of My Favorite Martian? Or 80 million on Instinct (you know, the one about Cuba Gooding Jr as the lawyer for a feral man played by Anthony Hopkins)? And let us never forget Chill Factor, a movie that can best be described as "Speed on an ice cream truck" (and Cuba Gooding Jr again!) that nevertheless only grossed back 11 million of its 70 million budget.

But no studio baffled as often as Universal, who routinely spent at least 70 million on seemingly every movie they made, only to see one after another flop. They had a few hits, of course - Notting Hill, American Pie, The Best Man... but they were the lower budgeted ones. Outside of The Mummy, every big budget movie they made was a complete flop. Their fourth highest grossing film of the year was End of Days, a movie that kicked off Arnold's seemingly unending string of major misfires. They blew 80 million on EdTV, a movie no one remembers outside of True Detective memes. And they somehow dropped almost the same amount on Dudley Do-Right, giving Brendan Fraser the fun distinction of starring in the studio's highest and lowest grossing films of the year.

Dudley did serve one purpose, however - it (barely) kept Virus from taking that bottom slot. Virus was the first film released by Universal that year, and turned out to be a pretty good indicator of the news they'd receive over and over throughout the next 12 months. Budgeted at 75 million, the film was originally set to open during the summer of 1998, but it was dumped in January, barely making the top 10 on its opening (holiday!) weekend, coming behind fellow dud At First Sight (the #1 movie was Varsity Blues, which cost less than a quarter of either of them). Director John Bruno hasn't helmed a narrative feature since, Jamie Lee Curtis takes a shot at it whenever she can (an "all time piece of shit", I believe is the quote from an interview conducted AFTER she had appeared in Halloween: Resurrection), and when it came to DVD Universal couldn't even be bothered to list its bonus features properly: the disc has deleted scenes, commentary, etc - but the back of the package only touts things like "Production Notes" and "Web Links".

It has not been released on Blu-ray.

Now, some duds are unfairly maligned and mistreated, but in this case the movie's fate was well deserved: it's a pretty lousy flick, with very little of that 75 million appearing on screen. Sure, there are a few water scenes that probably cost more than a few pennies, and I would hope like hell that Ms. Curtis and her co-stars (Donald Sutherland, and Billy Baldwin in his last lead role for a big studio film) were paid handsomely for their trouble, but it's shockingly low on action, keeping the (expensive?) FX off-screen for quite a bit of its 93 minute runtime (plus another 6 of credits). We're at the 55 minute mark by the time anyone gets killed, and the robot appearances prior to that were brief. Until that point, it's mostly just the minimal cast walking through poorly lit corridors, yelling at each other, or barking things like "Get back to the engine room!" into walkie talkies. In other words, it's basically a Syfy Original Movie, but even those have the good sense to give us something in the first 30 minutes. To be fair there is the obligatory prologue where we get a glimpse of the catastrophe on the boat that our heroes will investigate later, but that sort of stuff doesn't count, and is practically forgotten by the time it kicks back into gear.

But more problematic is the fact that Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't do a goddamn thing in the entire movie. She's the heroine, and the biggest draw for the genre fans that Universal assumed would turn out in droves in order to make this thing profitable, but I honestly couldn't tell you one thing of note she does in the movie besides punch Sutherland in the face. Now, you can say that Alien didn't really give Ripley much to do either (and that film was a clear influence on this), but she had personality and was the lone survivor for the film's 15 minutes or so climax - Curtis is saddled with Baldwin until the bitter end, and you have to look at the deleted scenes to see her biggest (only?) major moment of personality on par with Ripley getting all testy with Ashe. Even the aforementioned punching; it's not like she does it and then takes charge - it happens and then she goes back to standing around with the other characters. I assume at some point the role was meatier; she claims she only did it because another movie fell through, but even with that excuse I can't imagine of all the offers she must have been getting during her post-True Lies* career boost that THIS was her best Plan B.

So what's good about it? Well the FX hold up, thankfully - the blending of CGI and practical robotics works pretty well, which is to be expected when Phil Tippett's studio is involved (and under the direction of Bruno, an Oscar winner (and multiple nominee) for his FX work). Sutherland is a hoot, contemplating suicide one minute and all bug-eyed with delight the next (he believes they'll score 30 million in salvage revenue for retrieving the ship), and is game enough to play his final scene as a half robot. And uh... it rips off Hardware a bit, so it might remind you to watch Hardware. I guess that's a positive thing, right?

It's also part of the sub-sub-genre of horror movies that involve the crew of a smaller ship getting on board a much larger ship and investigating WHAT WENT WRONG. Death Ship, Deep Rising, Ghost Ship, Triangle... and those are just the waterbound ones. Add in the outer space entries like Event Horizon and you can make yourself a pretty lengthy marathon, of which I'm pretty sure this is the low point (yep, even Ghost Ship offers more - like that amazing opening sequence). It's a fine scenario for a horror flick, even if almost none of them are ever as interesting as they are in those first moments, when they're seeing evidence of major action and saying trailer-ready things like "What.... HAPPENED here?". But in Virus even those moments kind of suck.

As to why I bought the damn disc in the first place, your guess is as good as mine. I saw it theatrically (back to back with The Thin Red Line, randomly enough), and can't imagine I was that impressed with it then, either. I am pretty sure this is the first time I watched the disc since then (seems I'd recall the snafu with the extra features), and it'll be the last - now that I've finally given it a look it'll go in the pile of trade-ins. Life's too short to give Virus a THIRD chance.

*It was shot in early 1997, a year before H20.