1999. Columbine happened. Bill Clinton was acquitted of obstruction of justice (weird). Sponge Bob premiered. And the world was preparing for Y2K and the inevitable takeover of our computer overlords (also weird). So maybe the utterly forgettable horror film Virus, which released twenty years ago today, was representative of that fear, but what if it was actually pro-Russian propaganda?...
…Directed by John Bruno (his one and only feature), and written by Chuck Pfarrer (Darkman) and Dennis Feldman (Species), Virus was released twenty years ago today and is based off of Pfarrer’s Dark Horse Comic series of the same name. The story revolves around an American tugboat crew that board an abandoned Russian research vessel, which it just so happens has been taken over by an alien intelligence which is seeking the eradication of the human race. It stars Hollywood heavyweights Donald Sutherland and Jamie Lee Curtis, and to a lesser degree, William Baldwin, and was by all accounts a monumental failure for so many reasons that I’m not going to bother to get into here. Instead, I want to focus on one idea so implausible it might just make a bit of sense, which is the idea that the film may have bombed because it is so unequivocally pro-Russian, and us Americans have never been very fond of Russia…at least before an overweight Cheeto/likely Russian spy began trying to convince Americans that Russia is our friend.
It all starts with the difference of portrayal between Russians and Americans in the film. Let’s look at the Russians first. Virus portrays them as smart, intellectual people who are unbearably friendly, and can play chess floating upside down in space. That’s some skill. They’re also much more advanced, with expertly crafted spaceships and expensive research vessels full of robotic material perfect for crafting into funny looking mechanical spiders as we see later. Hell, even the lone surviving Russian of the initial attack, Nadia (Joanna Pacula), ends up being the hero of the film! She’s not only the one person who understands the threat which our characters face, but she’s the one who (SPOILER ALERT) sacrifices herself in the end by blowing herself and a giant killer robot to smithereens, all while Curtis sits in a corner crying and screaming, and Baldwin runs around who knows where, presumably with his shirt off trying to look tough.
Meanwhile, on the American side, they’re the exact opposite. In this film, the Americans are the ones driving a dinky little tugboat on its last sea-legs, without a single piece of what you’d call “advanced” equipment. Half the crew, especially Sutherland, are greedy fuckers who are willing to face certain death or even kill over a few extra dollars in their pockets, and they’re about as rude and un-charming as you can get to boot. A few of them end up being completely crazy, such as Sutherland and Richie (Sherman Augustus), putting everyone’s lives at risk with their manic tendencies. All of this while the rest are just plain incompetent or useless. Why is it the American captain who wants to kill everybody for money? Why not one of the Russians? Are the filmmakers trying to say that Americans are typically a bunch of selfish money-grubbers who would sell their souls or the soul of their country for their own gain? Are we to believe that other Americans are really so incompetent that they would willingly allow this, even though it was plain as day, for either their own virtue or self-promotion?
By now I hope you’ve realized that I am one-hundred percent kidding with this piece, but fuck it, there’s nothing left to say about Virus, so let’s have some fun. Anyway, going along with the negative portrayal of Americans is the fact that these characters are all shoot first, ask questions later. Hell, Sutherland is willing to blow his own brains out over the loss of his cargo, as if that is somehow his last chance at life. And every time something so much as makes a strange noise, our guys and gals are unloading on it with bullets like it’s that scene from Predator with Jesse Ventura leading the way. Meanwhile, Nadia is literally the only calm, calculated character thinking from a rational standpoint, even having to be the one that denies their rescue from a nearby ship, because she understands the alien presence cannot make it off this damn boat. I mean, is that really a fair assessment, to think that Americans are so gun crazy, that we’d rather shoot a problem than try to figure it out? Sure, I have a stepbrother who once stood outside with a realistic-looking BB rifle and shot at the side of a 7-11 next to a major public street, but that doesn’t mean ALL Americans are stupid enough to treat guns like cool toys instead of being responsible with them. In short, Virus is a pretty ugly view of American tendencies.
Perhaps most damning to any argument against the idea that Virus is a pro-Russian film is the way in which the alien species views the human race and works to stop it. I don’t need to give you a history lesson for you to know that Russia doesn’t exactly look kindly on American Democracy, and that if it were up to them, literally the entire world (minus Russia), would just be one great big smoking nuked to shit crater. It just so happens, the alien lifeform feels the same way. In one inexplicably on the nose scene, our heroes communicate with the alien through a computer, in which the alien tells them that the human race is, by definition, a virus which must be wiped out. I’m not arguing its reasoning. By all accounts, we are a virus eating away at Earth. Humans wipe out other life. Humans exhaust the earth of its natural resources. We’re the cause of Global Warming. And we reproduce without any regard for population control, building and building, destroying and demolishing. In retrospect, Virus would’ve been much better off digging into that theme, but what can you do? With this idea, you have to ask yourself, is the alien actually the one we’re supposed to be rooting before, because it’s trying to, from the film’s point of view, “cure” planet Earth? And I know what you’re thinking, maybe Russians do want to wipe out all other humans, but that’s a pretty big leap to connect them to the alien creature in Virus, but is it?
All you need to do is take a look at the way the lifeform operates to see I’m onto something here. Though Virus introduces various, excellently designed robotic creatures, they all operate under the same mind, or “regime”, or, in a more direct way, a dictatorship run by the single “dominant lifeform”, as the alien considers itself. Sound like someone in Russia you might have heard of? But the trick of it is, it’s not as if these separate beings, including Sutherland-Cyborg and others which are created, actually know they are not in control. They’re treated as a singular mind, a communistic society all working towards the same goal. Now, Russia is no longer openly communist, as the Soviet Union ended in 1991, but there are still communist elements present in Russia, and you could argue that by combining this sort of dictatorship with communist ideals, the alien lifeform in Virus does actually represent the modern Russian regime. And how does this alien “Russia” take control of the human race? Why, by “hacking” us, aka melding our bodies with their parts/ideas! Bam! 2016 election, anyone? Starting to find yourself wondering if Trump or the Republicans have bio-mechanical parts made in Russia? Well stop it, because that’s ridiculous. I hope.
And what’s with the end theme song. As the credits roll, rather than some silly rap based around the title of the movie, which was common around 1999, we literally get a Russian march theme. In a movie that supposedly has little to nothing to do with Russians. What the hell is that about? Coincidence, or recruitment propaganda expressing love for Mother Russia? Try telling me the film doesn’t want me to stand up, march home with that beat in my head, and order myself a Putin T-shirt.
Whatever you end up believing, forget about it, because this has all been nonsense meant for a laugh. Virus as a film is such a waste of time, that there’s nothing much left to say about it twenty years later. This film is a waste of the talents of Sutherland and Curtis, reducing them to one-dimensional, ineffective characters, and it’s especially a waste of the exceptional special FX team, which did incredible work with some eerie bio-mechanical designs that deserve a much better script around them. Virus is one of the most massive bombs in the horror genre that I know of, costing around 75 million and making back only about 30 million worldwide. WORLD. WIDE. So, I’ll leave you with this. Assume my sarcastic, crackpot theories on Virus are actually heading in the right direction, would this potentially pro-Russian, anti-American film make more today than it did then? No one can say for sure, but my guess is about 32% of Americans would approve.
By Matt Konopka