Does the Robot Want to Kill You or Screw You?

Virus: adapted from the Dark Horse comic-book series created by Chuck Pfarrer by Chuck Pfarrer and Dennis Feldman; directed by John Bruno; starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Kit Foster), William Baldwin (Steve Baker), Donald Sutherland (Captain Everton), Joanna Pacula (Nadia), Cliff Curtis (Hiko), Sherman Augustus (Richie), and Marshall Bell (Woods) (1999): On the bright side, this first directorial effort from visual effects maestro didn’t destroy John Bruno’s career… as a visual effects maestro. 

The problems with the movie aren’t his fault, however — comic-book adaptation or not, Virus is an insanely derivative piece of work. It is, however, relatively competent in its direction. It’s also produced by Gale Ann Hurd, and derivative of many of the other films she produced. 

The crew of a salvage ship caught in a hurricane comes across an abandoned Russian science ship. Or is it abandoned? After all, there’s blood and destruction everywhere. But kooky Captain Donald Sutherland — who appears to be acting in another, funnier movie — wants the giant vessel for the $30 million salvage fee it will bring from the Russians if they want it back. However, there’s SOMETHING ON THE SHIP.

Virus might be at least a slightly better movie if the prologue were moved into the centre of the film as a flashback. It’s as if Aliens (another Hurd-produced film, and one Virus cribs from shamelessly) showed us what happened to the colonists in the first five minutes of the movie. It’s a dumb storytelling decision that suggests that the studio may have thought a prologue-less Virus was too hard for an audience to follow. Given what a colossal bomb Virus turned out to be ($15 million domestic gross on a ‘Where did they spend it?’ budget of $75 million), maybe they’d like to travel back in time and fix some of the movie’s narrative decisions.

Other than trite dialogue and some dodgy visual effects (most of the storm shots of the Russian vessel in the hurricane clearly involve either miniatures or terrible CGI work), Virus also gives the viewer a mostly underwhelming nemesis. Or nemeses. Sometimes the crew has to fight evil versions of the cute robot from Short Circuit, sometimes they have to fight mechanical spiders from about a dozen SF films and TV shows, and sometimes Donald Sutherland gets assimilated by the Borg… and the Borg are nice enough to leave his captain’s hat on him. That at least is some funny stuff, and surely a great leap forward in human-cyborg relations.

The actors do what they can with what they’ve got. Well, except for the aforementioned Sutherland, who clearly said ‘To Hell with a naturalistic performance!’ on Day One of shooting. He’s sort of a hoot, as is Marshall Bell chewing the scenery as an untrustworthy helmsman. William Baldwin and the rest of the male cast members have almost nothing interesting to say. 

The Sigourney Weaver ‘action woman’ part gets split between Joanna Pacula and Jamie Lee Curtis in an almost schematically on/off way — which is to say, when one is kicking ass, the other is cowering in a corner, and vice versa. Curtis really hated this movie. It’s not hard to see why. It’s vaguely watchable, and some scenes in the robot abattoir have a sort of cyberpunk-meets-Grand-Guignol thing going on. But it’s also relentlessly derivative when it’s not just being dumb. Not recommended.

Westworld: written and directed by Michael Crichton; starring Yul Brynner (Robot Gunslinger), Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Dick Van Patten (Banker), and Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie) (1973): Before Michael Crichton gave us a murderously malfunctioning dinosaur them park in Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton gave us a murderously malfunctioning robot theme park in Westworld.  

Yes, this is the Delos Corporation’s adult theme park of the near-future in a desert area of the American Southwest. It’s divided into three independent sections that intentionally remind one of similar divisions in Disney theme parks: West(ern)world. Medievalworld, and Romanworld. Except for the guests, everyone you meet in a park is a robot.

The fact that you can bang the human-form robots of these three worlds is clearly part of the appeal of these expensive vacations for adults. You can also shoot them, stab them, punch them, and insult them with impunity. They’re just robots, albeit incredibly sophisticated sex-doll robots. Nothing can go wrong. Or is that worng?

James Brolin as a beefy American blowhard and Richard Benjamin as his sheepish, emasculated, divorced pal play our two protagonists. Or maybe increasingly cranky robotic gunslinger Yul Brynner is the protagonist. It really depends on where your sympathies lie. The film-makers dress Brynner like his heroic gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven. But in Westworld, he’s something of a dink even before his programming goes astray. Then Brynner becomes the unstoppable forerunner of the Terminator, complete with the occasional bit of pounding background music as he pursues his prey through the three worlds and down into the warren of maintenance tunnels and work rooms and labs below the Delos parks.

The movie works pretty well as a recurringly dumb bit of SciFi action with just a tinge of obvious satire. Unable to solve two narrative problems with anything involving cleverness, Crichton just stupids his way through. How do you tell robots from humans? Um, Delos couldn’t get the hands quite right. On robots that are indistinguishable otherwise from human and which you can boink away to your heart’s content, it’s the hands that are the design flaw. 

Secondly, how can the bullets be real? Oh, all guns have a sensor that shuts down the gun if it’s pointed at a human being. That wouldn’t seem to help if one got clipped by a ricochet or a bullet coming from a few hundred yards away, something that seems pretty likely given the giant shoot-outs we hear in the background throughout the first half of the movie. Maybe they’re magic bullets. 

These are the dumb solutions to problems created by Crichton himself. Surely one could put a small tattoo or mark somewhere prominent and always visible on a robot to distinguish it from a person. And surely you couldn’t have real, lethal bullets flying around and maintain a perfect safety record. But Yul Brynner’s gunslinger needs real bullets for Crazy Time!

Oh, well. Westworld is still an enjoyable slice of pre-Star Wars Sci Fi movie-making. The suspense in the second half is engaging and competently directed by Crichton. And now HBO will turn Westworld into a series with tons of graphic sex and nudity because that’s what HBO does. So look forward to more human/robot sexual shenanigans in 2016. Surely nothing can go worng. Recommended.

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