It's been a while since I did a "full review", having lately only had the time and patience for shorter, "half-sized" articles (which can take me an afternoon or so to do, versus three days for a longer one). This was pointed out to me this week by a reader who smacked me for downsizing my reviews to the point where it was becoming noticeable that I've lost my focus. So, to rectify this, I'm going to make this a long 'un!
Today, I'll be watching 1980's Virus, a Japanese and American production of a now-timely post-holocaust/disaster epic staring an international cast of A-list actors and made with what at the time was the largest budget in Japanese cinema history. Sadly, for a variety of convoluted reasons, it sank like the Empress of Ireland and cost a number of American distribution executives their jobs. Its failure probably had more to do with the American movie audience's burn-out on disaster films than any cultural bias, but it's hard not to wonder if the prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment in America during this time period had anything to do with it. Some blame might also be cast on a little film called The Empire Strikes Back, which in 1980 was hogging time on every single movie screen in the entire nation, bar none. No matter the reason, however, we over here in the States truly missed out on a very competent and mature end-of-the-world movie.
Virus comes to me via the horribly mutilated version that was eventually released in America, which was edited down to 108 minutes reduced from 155 and is really a sad travesty of nature. But, since probably 98% of you out there reading this will only have access to this abominable now-public domain US version, I don't feel bad about reviewing this one.
NOTE: Once I finished writing the body of this review, I stumbled across something I ordered off eBay months ago and just today opened. It's the awesome Sonny Chiba Action Pack 3-DVD set, which includes the original version of Virus (along with the pretty good Golgo 13 and the frickin' cool Bullet Train). This is the uncut original Japanese home-market version (though abortedly intended for US release) in all its glory. The reason it's in the Chiba set is that the full-length version had him in it (he's just a blip in the US version I reviewed).
I suppose I could have changed my review to reflect this, even written a new review based on the longer version, but I'm not going to. The reasons are simple: I don't wanna, and I don't hafta. So there. I did, however, pull all the screen caps off this original version, because the picture quality was a million times better than the burned-from-hazy-VHS-tape US version that I have (though, to be fair, I only paid a dollar for it). Yes, Mike, I know, you're disappointed in me.
And now on to the show...
We open in East Germany of all places, in a raging snow storm in the dead of night. A solitary East German scientist is meeting a couple of foreigners at a house out in the country, a secret get-together organized by the American military under a top secret umbrella. The scientist is here to give the Americans a sample of a plague virus that he wants them to give to another scientist in Austria, for the express purpose of properly disposing of the virus. The scientist is worried that this germ will "fall into the wrong hands" so to speak and wants the Americans to make it go away.
This is considered a busy day at Euro-Disney.
This military-engineered virus is called "MM-88", and it's a doozy. The effects of this virus are graphically described by the scientist in a thickly hushed German accent. It's a "mimic virus", in that it attaches itself to other viruses (everything from the common cold to anthrax) and magnifies their effects. The end result is that MM-88 is able to overwhelm the body's immune system with this blitz attack and death comes within a few days. Its unique properties also serve to defy attempts by any known anti-viral drug, making it the ultimate killer.
"Don't tell me that Starbucks has moved in on the Biological Warfare market, too!?"
It's also the ultimate biological warfare weapon, and that's the story of how it came to be in the hands of the East Germans. We don't learn this until a few scenes later, but I'll tell you here. MM-88 was developed in America not long ago, but its "special properties" were recognized by Eastern Bloc spies (apparently our scientific community is riddled with spies). The only sample of MM-88 was stolen and taken to East Germany, where it was examined by the scientist who is now trying desperately to get rid of it. Out of sheer worry for the fate of mankind, he's willing to risk his own life to make sure MM-88 is destroyed.
A familiar sight for broke young males who had to earn money for college.
Just as the deal is going down, however, the East German Security Police arrive! Trenchcoated men with submachineguns pile through the doors, boots clumping on the steps and flashlights waiving. The Americans escape into the night with the virus in a secure container, but the poor East German scientist is shot dead in a hail of bullets.
MP-40's in 1980 East Germany? Stalin would be rolling in his grave.
As the scene closes, we get a shot of the corpse's face, which shows a bloody hole where a bullet tore through an eye socket. As this happened in the film's first scene, I was expecting more such violent gore throughout the rest of the movie. However, I was surprised to see that this film, despite the holocaust theme, has surprisingly few moments of on-screen blood.
"Well I guess I'm not the protagonist after all."
Off now to a small plane zipping along in the dark. Inside, the escaped Americans gloat over their retrieval of the MM-88 virus, laughing at the death of the poor East German scientist. It's not explicitly stated that they are flying over the Alps, but later events lead me to believe that this plane is dodging radar across the South-Central European frontier. Having to fly so low means they are buffeted by the turbulence of the mountain air, and as such it's no surprise that they crash into the side of a rocky cliff! The container is tossed from the wreck, and we see it shatter upon an icy stone, the camera zooming in on the now-exposed broken vial of viral death.
And humanity's last words, like those of so many others, is "whoops!"
Next we go to Washington DC (as a helpful card tells us, this movie is in love with text title cards) a few days after the plane crashed (though certainly no longer than that). At some biological research facility (maybe civilian) we see a frazzled, distracted white-coated scientist mumbling and wandering aimlessly around his cluttered lab. This is Doctor Meyer, played by Canadian actor Stuart Gillard, who would go on to direct 1993's Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles III before probably killing himself out of shame (see what the internet can do for you? It's not all about tallmingle.com and YouTube videos of commercials for Alaskan coffee shops).
Dr. Meyer. First name Oscar... last name "Wiener".
Doctor Meyer is a germ warfare researcher, working for the US military on deadly viruses, including MM-88. He's also severely pissed right now, because it was from his lab that MM-88 was stolen and he's being told by a US Army Colonel that the team sent into East Germany to get it back is now missing itself. The Doctor is quite insistent that it be returned and not released into the air, because, as he shows us with a handy slideshow, if MM-88 gets out in the open the human race is doomed and stuff.
The soldier is Colonel Rankin, played by George Touliatos, who I think I recognized from some famous movie I saw once, but when I looked him up, I realized that he just looks like some guy from some famous movie I saw once. He's in charge of the viral plague division of the Army or something, he's the one on whose watch MM-88 was stolen and he's not been happy about that since.
Rankin and Bass decide on how to botch their next Tolkien adaptation.
There is so much yelling in this scene, as the Doctor is angry and scared of the possibilities of viral Armageddon, and the Colonel is mad that a civilian would dare yell back at him. I swear that every line of dialogue is screamed at the top of the lungs, and that got annoying very quickly. It's like Thanksgiving at my in-laws (ahem, sorry, ex in-laws).
So the thought of killing billions puts a smile on your face too, eh?
Eventually, the Doctor storms out and the Colonel reflects on what the dangers are. The dangers of letting the Doctor go free, mind you, not the dangers of the super-bug virus laying waste to the planet. With his priorities in line then, he orders the Doctor to be "admitted against his will" to a local mental hospital, where he can be safely kept quiet. He'd rather sweep this under the rug than to have his precious career in danger (gotta have that star!). That's the sort of thing that only happens in movies, I hope.
This is the scene at the gas station every time I fill up.
Ok, the Doctor's fears were well-founded, because MM-88 is indeed out and about, released in that plane crash. Quickly dubbed the "Italian Flu", thus making my identification of the Alps region as the likely starting point valid, the virus spreads like wildfire. As predicted by those in the know, there is no stopping it once it gets started. No one knows what it is, how to fight it, how long it will last, or anything, they just know that people are dying in droves despite the best medical science can do.
Walkin' on, walkin' on...
To the White House now (or at least a very badly dressed set that looks more like a conference room at a Holiday Inn) as the President of the United States and his staff sit glumly and watch a grainy 19-inch television set (with rabbit ears!). [Editor Pam: Nice to know the President is so frugal with taxpayers' money.] Showing on it is a newscast of the events of the recent days, the sort of collage of edited-together stock footage clips with a dramatic voice-over that serves more to get us, the audience, up to speed than provide the President and his staff anything they shouldn't already know.
Surprisingly decent Oval Office mockup. Note how orderly the stacks of paperwork are, and how someone inappropriately placed his glasses lens-down on a stack.
The gist is that the whole world has gone to hell. The Italian Flu is wrecking havoc across the globe, killing people like the Black Death and sickening nearly everyone. Social order and any semblance of organized governments are collapsing rapidly and there is nothing that can be done. I'm telling you all, this sort of thing is plausible in the real world, as science races ahead of logic and ideologies become so polarizing that one group would gladly kill everyone just to kill their enemies. You'd like to think that no one would dare develop something like MM-88, or at least make damn sure it was secure, but then you'd not be giving your fellow man much credit for stupidity and greed.
HEADLINE: Rare non-deformed baby born in Kazakhstan!
Anyway, watching all this with a determinedly set scowl is President Richardson, who seems to be channeling a conservative Nixon more than anyone else, even though I'm sure he's meant to be a progressive Carter. The President is played by Glenn Ford, one of the most iconic American movie actors you can think of (though by the 1980s he had been reduced to collecting SAG credits in coprolites like 1989's Border Shootout and 1988's Casablanca Express).
Throughout this scene and up until their ends, the President is here with Senator Barkley, the opposite-party leader of the "Committee on Defense Oversight". The Senator is played by Robert Vaughn, who has been in so many movies that even he can't remember them all (though, to be fair, the last one I recall seeing was 1998's BASEketball, and that's not really helpful to him). The Senator serves as the voice of reason, opposing the Military Industrial Complex and all that represents, I suspected he's meant to be Ted Kennedy.
Just then the doors open and a military man enters to give the President a briefing on the spread of the virus. This man, General Garland, is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and is played by Henry Silva, who seems to specialized in overly-wired type-A authority figures who usually die in some ironic, if gory, way at the hands of the hero by film's end. If he's not deliberately channeling General Ripper from Doctor Strangelove then someone needs to call a lawyer.
General Henry Silva, as only Silva could deliver...
The General is worried that this pandemic might be the precursor to a nuclear attack from "the enemy" (it's odd that at no point in this scene are the Russians fingered as possible sources of the virus, which just seems odd in a movie coming from the jingoistic early 1980s, but that may have something to do with the original Japanese script). The General demands that the President authorize the activation of the "ARS system", the Active Response System, which is a sort of a Mutual Assured Destruction concept where the firing off of our nuclear arsenal is left solely in the hands of a computer (don't these people watch movies?). The President, however, turns that offer down (eh, I vacillate on this because I think he has a responsibility to protect the nation from potential threats, even if he doesn't believe strongly in them).
"This Karl Marx lookalike leering at me is making me nervous".
And now we get a few more minutes of the world dying via news reports and paper fronts. We also get a few "on the ground" scenes from across the globe. In one, a desperate Italian mom tries to save her baby, and in another a Japanese mom takes her sick child to a hospital already overflowing with Italian Flu victims. This last scene might have been much longer in the original version, as it certainly seems we might have met these doctors and nurses before (and as a side note, even in the face of an extinction-level event, that one nurse with the white stockings and her hair a bit loose is looking extremely hittable).
What function do those little white hats play anyway?
Not for nothing, but I've watched some similar viral apocalypse movies lately, including 1971's Andromeda Strain and 1964's The Last Man on Earth, but I have to say that Virus is one of the better film representations of the dangers of invisible germs ending our species' glorious run as evolutionary winner. I also picked up recently Barth Anderson's Patron Saint of Plagues, which I can't recommend highly enough, both for the scary viral pandemic storyline and the whip-crack writing style. Anyway, I digress.
The virus slaughters the American governmental structure along with the average citizen, leaving just the President and a few staffers alive after a week or so. Any type of vaccine is worthless, and the only thing they know for sure is that the virus cannot live in temperatures below freezing. It's only now that the President remembers Antarctica (though he's known about the virus being dormant at cold temps so this is kinda inexcusable) and the many people who are living down there at the bottom of the world.
Global Warming has exacted a heavy toll--see, nary a penguin in sight!
Now, as a word of explanation, let me tell you that in 1980, Antarctica was dotted with international research stations, each owned and operated by different nations (the USA, Russia, Japan, and others). The main station is Palmer, run by the Americans. There are maybe 900 total people living down here as the Italian Flu takes hold.
With his last bit of strength the President calls up Palmer and asks for everyone's attention. The Palmer Station crew gathers around radio to hear the President's address (it's also broadcast to all the other stations on the continent, which seems impossible with the curvature of the pole). The President tells them what they already know, that the world outside of their snowy enclaves has either died or is dying and there is no real hope. He tells them to deny entrance to anyone from the outside and to work together as one group to survive. In the end, he implores these men and women to put aside their national and cultural differences for the greater good of the species (if it has any hope of lasting).
I love the 1930's-style cram-everyone-into-the-shot blocking.
By the way, the radio operator there at Palmer is a totally unknown Canadian actor named Nicholas Campbell, who would later star in the excellent tv series Da Vinci's Inquest as the titular coroner Dominic Da Vinci. I've been watching this in reruns for years, and I have to tell you, in a tv-land over-saturated with blandly-familiar CSI/Law and Order sorts of shows, Da Vinci's Inquest stands out as an amazingly well-written and superbly acted crime/procedural drama. I highly recommend you turn off your Criminal Intent and your SVU and watch this show.
"Colonel, do I look like Donnie Osmond to you?"
Crap, I keep wandering off tangent, I'm beginning to sound like Teleport City. Ok, and now our movie shifts to the continent of Antarctica, where the middle third takes place. With news out now, the staffs of all the stations contact each other and agree to meet at Palmer to discuss what's happening. We join two men from the Japanese station now, as they cross-country ski across the forbidding ice and snow, assumingly traveling overland as it's the winter season down there. Along the way to Palmer they stop by the Norwegian station, which is a smallish complex located near an ice flow.
When no one answers their calls, they breach the doors and enter. Much to their horror, they find that the dozen or so members of the Norwegian team have all killed themselves! Half-frozen bodies are scattered around, the place has been trashed, and blood reddens the snow. Guns and knives lay around, instruments of their demise.
This Norwegian cheated at Fussball by operating the opponent's players... for the last time.
Just as they are about to leave, they discover a single survivor of the massacre, a pregnant woman! Her name is Marit and she tells the tale about how desperation and isolation made first one man kill himself, and then drove the rest crazy with bloodlust. Marit only survived when her husband, as he was trying to kill her, was shot himself. All this must have only happened in the last day or so, because Marit is still hiding in a closet when the two Japanese men enter the station. And yes, all that sounds suspiciously familiar to the opening scene of Godzilla 1985, but Godzilla movies are notorious for ripping off other movies.
Who were they planning on hanging with this thing? A seven-headed Hydra?
One of the Japanese men continues on to Palmer for the meeting, while the other agrees to stay here with Marit, who is too pregnant to travel. This second man will prove to be our film's co-hero, Doctor Yoshizumi. Yoshizumi is played by Japanese actor Masao Kusakari, who I guess is fairly well-known in the Home Islands, but I've not seen him before this. He did, however, have a starring role in a 2007 movie named Hito ga hito o ai suru koto no doshiyo mo nasa, which I only mention because the English DVD title is The Brutal Hopelessness of Love, which perfectly fits my current post-nasty-divorce mood towards relationships.
Why do Japanese leading men usually not look very Japanese at all?
The pregnant Norwegian woman Marit is played by 29-year old Olivia Hussey, who was a dark-skinned exotic hottie in 1980 and is still damn fine in 2008, if I do say so myself (even if her actual acting resume after this movie is suspect). Her casting in this movie is odd, as she doesn't look at all Norwegian and speaks with a Spanish accent, but she does add to the "international flavor" of the cast.
Olivia Hussey doing what she does best... looking concerned.
At Palmer Station, a "Federated Council of Antarctica" is formed by the representatives, led by a US Navy Admiral named Conway. Conway is played by American actor George Kennedy, one of the bigger names in our cast and a staple of the 1970s disaster epic genre (Earthquake and Airport amongst them). Skimming through his ridiculously long acting resume, I'd say my favorite Kennedy roles were in the absurdist Naked Gun series, where he got to play against type in some pretty funny scenes. In Virus he's a well-dressed military man with a good and kind heart. He's maybe the most sympathetic character in our film, at his core a grandfatherly leader to the remnants of society who takes his role very seriously but understands that circumstances dictate that everyone have an equal say.
Kennedy is quite concerned about his decision to sign on to the upcoming Death Ship.
The rest of the Council is made up of about a dozen people, one each from each station in Antarctica (America is the major power down here so Conway gets the chair). Most of the Council members are just background faces, but a few of them are worth noting.
The Chilean delegation is led by Captain Lopez, played by Edward James Olmos, a fine looking Latino man, who in 1980 was a floppy-haired equivalent to Antonio Bandaras in his prime. If you don't already recognize him from the Sci-Fi Channel's spectacular revival of Battlestar Galactica, then you are dead to me. Get off my site.
Man, he looked like hell even when he was young!
Captain Lopez is by far the most emotional and adamant of the Council members, and is not afraid to speak his mind, even if it goes against the grain. He and the Argentinean rep even get into a fistfight (!), which is quickly cooled down. His conflict with the Argentine is more nationalist than personal, though only someone who knows about the simmering decades-long hatred between Chile and Argentine would get it fully (not quite Greek/Turk level, but they don't have a lot of love for each other and have always used Antarctica as a "neutral field" of sorts to continue their conflict).
Japanese love their fistfights in inappropriate situations.
Let's also meet Major Carter, a character who will actually play a part in the resolution of our movie (as apposed to Lopez, who just looks swarthy and gesticulates wildly a lot). Major Carter is an American Army liaison to Admiral Conway, though his exact job responsibilities are kinda dicey (maybe he's here to coordinate the resupply flights, but I think those are run by the USAF). He's played by Bo Svenson, who has had one of those damn-why-can't-I-have-his-life sort of lives that us mere mortals can only dream of (just Google him, seriously, you'll feel so inferior with your pathetic night shift at the gas station/internet porn existence that you'll finally have the courage to pull the trigger). Svenson was coming off popular success as Sheriff Pusser in the Walking Tall movies, and his character in Virus, who I'll just call the "Major", is little more than Pusser in a US Army Aviation flight suit and snow boots.
Bo Svenson as "Pusser-'n-Boots".
Back to Washington DC for a bit now, to tie up some loose ends. In a sad final scene, the President and the Senator are all that remain in the White House, both suffering from the Italian Flu and barely holding on. They both have time, however, for droll poetical waxing about the nature of life and their unresolved legacies and all that. These two men were once bitter political enemies, but here at the ends of their lives, they have become close friends.
In the event of an outbreak, it's the expendable Mexican cleaning staff who goes first.
The Senator dies first, a wracking phlegm-spewing coughing spell finishing him off, to slide down into his chair in a very artful death-pose. The President looks on sadly, and says, "You were always my rival, but never my enemy." The President then dies, seemingly of a massive and swift heart attack, slumping over on his desk. I guess this was supposed to be a dramatic end, but I just could never get behind Glenn Ford's character, though that may be more due to my general dislike for him as an actor than anything else.
Promising career dying... dying... dying...
That nutjob General now marches in and, even though the President is clearly dead, demands that he be finally allowed to activate the ARS system. After giving a crisp salute and heel click, he turns and marches straight to the underground control bunker beneath the White House. I guess maybe I should wonder aloud why the President was not down in this bunker where the air is certainly self-contained (in a time of national crisis, it's job one for the Secret Service to get the POTUS and his family to a bunker, but that's not going to make for much drama).
General Sicko still feels the need to follow protocol.
The General goes up to an overly-simplistic control panel and pushes a couple of buttons, activating the ARS missile defense system. As has been pointed out by others, it's laughable that such an incredibly important piece of hardware could be activated by one guy just pushing a few buttons. You'd imagine that it would be like a nuclear weapon aboard a warship, it would require matching sets of keys turned by distant individuals, updated authorization codes, failsafe switches, something, anything to keep one guy from being able to do it alone in a fit of rage over breaking up with his girlfriend. The General then presumably dies, because we don't see him again.
The General lives out his last hours playing some serious "Simon".
Back in Antarctica, the Council is still meeting and talking, though at least now they have all decided to put aside their national and cultural differences and work together. This is one of the more typical end-of-the-world cliches, where peace and love win out over thousands of years of deeply ingrained prejudices and racial biases. Still, it's a nice thought.
"It's a pity we won't live... but then again who does?"
Much ado now as word comes over the radio from a Russian submarine! It seems that this boat, named the T-232, has hobbled down here to Antarctic waters and is looking to land at Palmer Station to seek medical attention and resupply. Sadly, the sub's crew is infected with the Italian Flu! Half the crew is dead, the rest sick, and a poor Ensign is now in command. He's desperate, he's terrified, and he's pissed off, and he has a submarine loaded with weaponry, and that's a really bad combination for the people at Palmer.
"Yeah, come here and kill us all... it's not like we're the last hope for mankind or anything."
We go now to the T-232 as it coasts along on the surface through the ice flows off Palmer Station. The stand-in for the fictional T-232 is actually the CSS Simpson, a 37-year old former US Navy Balao-class diesel attack boat purchased by the Chilean Navy back in the 1970s. Throughout the rest of this movie we get some really impressive wide and close-up shots of the Simpson, though not in any sort of Michael Bay-esque weapon fetish sort of way, just using the boat as an integral part of the scenery. As in most Godzilla movies, I was impressed by the level of cooperation Virus' filmmakers received from the Chilean military in this project, who provided virtually unfettered access to the Simpson (though, to be fair, it's an antiquated relic, it's not like they got to film an Ohio up close and personal).
Now it's painfully clear to the Council that they can't let the Russian sailors land at Palmer, as they would infect them with the flu. The Russian rep, Doctor Borodinov, orders the Ensign to stand off do to the danger of landing, but he clearly isn't comfortable with leaving his countrymen out at sea to die horrible slow deaths. Borodinov, by the way, is played by Englishman Chris Wiggins, who is certainly best known for his stellar performances in Strawberry Shortcake Meets the Berrykins and Care Bears II: A New Generation, both prime examples of the superior nature of man over pastry. He's just one of many ancillary characters in this movie, people who come and go, say a few lines, advance the plot along a few yards, and then disappear into the background of group shots.
"I'm a cliche."
The poor Russian Ensign doesn't take this well, and we can't really blame him. The Russian military isn't known for properly training junior officers for leadership roles, so it's no surprise that this young man is cracking at the seams. He has responsibilities to his crew and is under a great deal of stress, so he tells Palmer that he's landing his crew there whether they like it or not.
I took two Aspirins and now it's the morning and I'm calling you.
But, what's this? Another voice comes across the radio, interrupting the Ensign's threats. It comes from another submarine in the immediate vicinity, this one the British submarine Nereid. The HMS Nereid is also the Simpson, just filmed from different angles (though the Russian boat had a nifty red star painted on the conning tower).
"Hey, it's us but filmed from a different angle!"
The Nereid's commanding officer is Captain McCloud, a grizzled, veteran submariner who is well aware of how important his role in the survival of the species will be. McCloud is played by 59-year old living legend Chuck Connors, who, amongst other achievements that rival your 450 on the SAT and your collection of Sailor Moon dolls, was the first player in the NBA to shatter a glass backboard in a game. How the hell could I make that up?
"Get me The Sarge".
Alright, enough character introductions, I promise, I know those get annoying after a while. This movie has an amazingly huge cast and a lot of big names, so I felt the need to note a few of the more recognizable ones for you benefit. I won't do any more from here on out, ok?
When the T-232 makes to fight the Nereid over the right to land at Palmer, the Russian representative reluctantly asks McCloud to "do what he has to do". And now we have an awesome sub-on-sub battle, really one of the best I've seen in years. There is no CGI, no fake-looking model work, no forced scenes of unreasonable tactics, just a realistic portrayal of modern naval combat. The T-232 crash dives, seeking to gain safety in depth, but the Nereid is too close to evade. The Brits launch a SUBROC, which thumps out of a forward tube and then shoots into the air, the rocket motor kicking in and blasting it across the short distance to where the T-232 has just submerged. Once on target, the SUBROC dives into the water and then races in like a regular torpedo. In a crushing explosion, the Russian submarine is destroyed.
The best way to kill a virus is with a missile.
Afterwards, some discussion reveals that the crew of the British sub is germ free! They have been on station for long enough to have missed the onset of the Italian Flu, and have not dared to expose themselves since. This happy news is well-received at Palmer by the Council, who recognize instantly the value of both a batch of well-trained sailors and an invaluable means of transport and defense. The crew is asked to land, which they do. I should note that by doing so, they've also added another hundred men or so to the mix, more mouths to feed and more personal problems to deal with.
"I'm totally British even though I'm not even attempting the accent."
While we're thinking about subs, why not other subs? Surely the Nereid was not the only nuclear submarine at sea before the Italian Flu outbreak (we might rule out diesel boats as they have to snorkel at some point, which would introduce the virus). Some nuke boats would unwisely come to port, others might even more unwisely take on infected survivors, and maybe even a few would shoot each other up, but certainly there would be more than just one boat left. And while I'm thinking of it, what about underground bunkers? The USA (and more so Russia) is dotted with self-contained underground bunkers specifically designed to protect military installations or assure the continuity of government under just these circumstances. Surely a few of these would be active still, holding small numbers of men and women (though without hope of escape, they wouldn't last long). And another thing, what about the far north Arctic? If it's cold enough in Antarctica to keep the virus dormant, then surely at the other end of the planet you'd have similar conditions. There'd be Inuits and whalers and the like up there still surviving, as well as the crews of a few research stations and radar sites, yes?
Anyway, I'm digressing (again). News comes from the Norwegian station of a baby born to Marti, a healthy girl named Gree. This tongue-twisting child-hating name means something along the lines of "sunrise" in Norwegian, which is fine, but maybe Eve would have been more appropriate. There is much rejoicing across Antarctica, for Gree represents the first hope for the survival of the species. It's also somewhat sad, however, as bringing a child into a world like this, with so much death and devastation, almost seems cruel. Still, the Council asks politely if it can serve as a "collective godfather" to the baby, which is cute.
This child shall never know the joys of being raised on Sesame Street.
Not all is rosy at Palmer, however, as human beings in stressful situations often act irrationally. It doesn't help that there are just eight (!!!!) women in all of Antarctica, to go with nearly 900 men (counting the sub's crew). Inevitably, one of the eight woman is raped, the assailant not identified. All of the women come before the Council (which includes one woman) and demand some accounting for this potentially dangerous development. With such a tiny population of females (with which to repopulate the earth) they must be protected as their single most precious and irreplaceable asset.
Are all the female researchers in Antarctica really this pretty?
Clearly, new rules for sex must be made. The old ideal of one woman for one man only has to go, for the sake of the entire population. As we see later, a system of "appointments" is made, whereby eligible men are given equal time with the women, in a well-meaning though culturally appalling effort to keep the dwindling seed of humanity alive. A lot is unsaid, but it's clear that this arrangement is not just for procreation, but for satisfying the natural inherent sexual needs of the men. The women are not too pleased, but they realize the future resides with their wombs. [Editor Pam: Oh, man. In this brave new world, the women are essentially just prostitutes with no say over who they have to service. How many men a day is each one assigned? I wonder if the men get to pick which woman they'll sleep with, or is it done by lottery? What happens when a woman gets pregnant, does she still have to service her quota, or is she given a rest? And does she get a sex-free period to allow her to nurse, or once the baby's born, does she have to get pregnant again as soon as possible? And who looks after all the toddlers while their mothers are churning out more babies? Do the women at least get preferential treatment in recognition of their vital contribution to the survival to the human race, or are they just getting worn out by constant childbirth and child-rearing in a place that almost certainly has very limited facilities for coping with any sort of complications in a pregnancy? These women were scientists, are they going to allow themselves to be made into nothing more than baby-making machines without at least some protest? I'm assuming that there's no way 900 men are going to allow the women to band together and demand to boss what's left of the human race, in return for the vital service they're performing.]
Even if I only get my turn with this lady once a year, it's still more action than I'm getting now anyway.
A year passes, maybe two years. Babies are born, life settles down in the frozen south, and generally people seem happy. Humans are remarkable adaptors, we can survive the greatest challenges, the worst catastrophes, as long as we have hope for a better tomorrow. And nothing says hope for the future than a roomful of bouncing infants. We now go to a Christmas party, maybe three years after the virus swept the globe. It's a happy scene, full of joy and laughter and life (and bad sweaters and polyester shirts).
I hope that scotch isn't for her.
Yoshizumi and Marti (the Japanese scientist and the Norwegian girl, remember them?) are in love, though it's platonic at this point, and Yoshizumi acts as a surrogate father for Marti's child. Despite this, Marti is one of the eight women, and she must fulfill her duty to the greater human race. And this means that men "have their turn with her", as we see one nervous sailor approach her with an "appointment card" with her name on it. Yoshizumi, who must have seen this numerous times before, walks away sadly, the moment overcoming him. Marti looks on at him sadly as he goes, none of this is easy for anyone. This is one of the stronger character scenes in the movie, showing us how something as drastic as a pandemic would cause equally drastic changes in society's mores and value systems. And nothing has been more steady or destructive in human history than the emotions of love and jealousy.
Japanese Colin Farrell.
Now, to find out what's out there, the Council delegates the Nereid to undertake a global excursion to look for survivors and check on conditions. No idea how long this trip takes, but certainly many months, as they visit such far flung places as Tokyo and New York City. Sadly, in all the ports they visit, they find zero survivors. And, yes, this is taken almost scene-for-scene from 1959's On the Beach, and would later show up in William Brinkley's most excellent novel The Last Ship (read it).
Surfacing in a very dead city.
We get a few nice sequences here showing a nifty flying drone thingie that the sub releases while surfaced. The drone (which I don't think is real) flies around with a camera attached and sends back pictures to the sub. We see a number of these grainy black-and-white images on the sub's monitors, though they are damnably a mix of aerial and ground-level shots and that annoys me. While that shot of the skeleton in the car looks dramatic, there is no way possible for the flying drone to have taken that close-up (this has always been a bugaboo in Japanese monster movies, and I rage every time I see an example of it).
He died making love to his gas-efficient foreign car.
In addition to the drone, they also collect air samples through a raised probe, proving that the virus is still active in the air years after the initial outbreak. Thus, they stay safely sealed up in the sub during the entire voyage. Despite serious reservations by Captain McCloud (can't blame him) a Doctor Latour (who is aboard to help with the science part of the trip) pleads with him to keep some virus samples aboard so they can run tests on them back at Palmer. His hope is that a vaccine can be found, or at least they can learn more about the virus and how it works. It seems he's working alone on this, which is odd, but maybe he's the only qualified virologist.
I'm old and serious-looking, therefore more qualified than the rest of the world.
Ok, time to add some serious drama to our movie. Yoshizumi's profession before the virus hit was studying earthquakes, and he thinks he had found something seriously upsetting. His research (still laying around, maybe he was tinkering with it these past few years to keep busy) shows that off the eastern seaboard of America there is a major problem with the fault line there. He has predicted that, due to some oil drilling in the area over a pocket of some sort, a major earthquake is due to hit the East Coast. This "Big One", to steal a term, is coming in about a month (though we wonder just how he can predict this with such certainty) and will surely flatten Washington DC (and presumably the entire East Coast, no loss).
Just can't get away from those faultlines, can you?
The problem, however, is that darned ARS system that we saw the crazyass General activate way back in the first act. Now the Major (remember him?) used to work in that bunker (how coincidental!) and he knows that the system is designed to shoot if it detects the earth shaking of a nuclear detonation in or near Washington DC (which would signal a Russian sneak attack). As well, the Russians also have their own version of the ARS system and it's active. So, to make a long story short, when the earthquake hits in a month, both automated systems will launch a full-scale nuclear exchange at each other, thinking that a nuke has gone off.
"So we're all gonna be dead... who's up for more cribbage?"
Now you're thinking, who cares about all those nukes, let the Northern Hemisphere glow for a century, there is nothing up there to worry about anyway, right? Well, the Russian rep tells them all the kicker, that Palmer Station is on the target list! It seems that the Russians were worried that Palmer was really some military instillation and not an innocuous research station (which, who knows, maybe it was when first built). So, again, once the earthquake hits, the American ARS system will launch, then the Russian ADS system will automatically launch in retaliation, and an ICBM will be on its way to Palmer. That's not good.
A Russian version of William Fichtner.
With little real hope, the Council must decide fast what to do to save as much of what they have at Palmer as they can. Clearly, the number one responsibility is to get the women and children (the hope of the species) out of there. Now, earlier we heard that there was an American icebreaker wintering at Palmer when the virus hit and now that it's warmed up a bit, that ship is able to sail. The plan is to load the women and kids onto the icebreaker and take them to another station to wait things out. If Palmer gets nuked, then at least the seeds of survival will be intact. I must ask, though, why not load everyone up with all supplies and go to other bases? Makes zero sense. Sure, not everyone could fit the first trip, but you have at least a month. Also, why not use the sub to transport? What about planes? I'm overthinking this again.
Man, those wool sweaters have to itch...
The Council's main plan is to send the Major on the Nereid up to Washington DC, have him break into the bunker beneath the White House, and disable the ARS system before hell breaks loose (again). If it sounds like our thinking-man's Japanese disaster movie has suddenly become a mindless red-blooded American action movie, then that's what it feels like to me too.
The Major can't do it alone (or so they say) so someone must come along with him. Now this is clearly a suicide mission, what with the virus and all, so they can't really just pick someone against their will (though the Major volunteered to go, which might get someone motivated out of manly guilt). They draw cards out of a hat to see who will accompany him, with whomever pulls the ace of spades being the one. It's Yoshizumi who pulls the card (though it seems like he deliberately did so, the US edit is confusing in places).
Drawing lots for suicide mission. Unsurprisingly the Japanese man jumps in to the front of the line.
The Major doesn't want to take Yoshizumi along, both because he's a loner hero by nature and he thinks that the Japanese man isn't physically fit enough for him. Yoshizumi, showing considerably more spunk that imagined, jumps on the Major, determined to fight him for the right to come along. The Major, being a trained killer, has no trouble with the much smaller and weaker Japanese, but Yoshizumi doesn't give up until he's knocked out cold. In the end, the Major agrees to take Yoshizumi along, impressed with his spirit and willingness to sacrifice himself for a greater good.
The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades!! [insert air guitar]
This is truly an awesome scene, which could have ended up causing laughs, but instead comes across as powerfully emotional and pivotal for the development of these two characters. Both these actors play this scene seriously, Bo Svenson especially, and this three-minute sequence is probably what will stay with me long after I've forgotten the rest of the movie.
Breathtaking cinematography overwhelms this fight scene.
The trip planned out, their last night in Palmer is full of backslapping and drinking, with everyone gathered around to wish them well and silently thank God that it isn't them going on this death ride. Admiral Conway, who has loosened up considerably in the last few years, gives the Major a bottle of brandy. Most oddly, the Chilean Captain Lopez sits down at a piano and sings a slow, mournful song in Spanish! That was hard to get through.
Demonstrating why Vangelis was hired to do the music for Blade Runner. Or else we'd have had the Oregami Unicorn song.
Marti comes to Yoshizumi's arms this last night, giving herself to him freely. It's unsaid, but I like to think that this is the first sexual union between these two, despite the love they've felt for each other. Yoshizumi's character has been so honorable and upstanding so far, that I'd be shocked if he had been fornicating like a college freshman before this night. I'm just a romantic, I guess. Also, I should note that we don't have one single scene of female nudity in this entire movie, which is kinda sorta surprising.
So would this be the first oriental man/white woman interracial pairing in film? Somebody tell me.
The next morning they take a Zodiac out to the Nereid, which is moored in the bay. The sub's crew haul them aboard and show them to their bunks. Across the wide bay, the icebreaker is also loading passengers, women and children. Marti, holding her child, looks mournfully across to the sub and softly demands of God, "Make him come back to me." I really wish they had spent more time developing the relationship between these two, it really could have been rewarding to see the effect of the end of the world on two individuals who we get to know well.
This one is pretty self-explanatory.
Just before setting sail, Doctor Latour comes aboard the submarine with something for the Major and Yoshizumi. He has just finished synthesizing a small initial batch of what he hopes is a vaccine for the virus! Remember he's been working on that air sample they brought back from Japan a while back, and now he thinks he's found a solution (high radiation doses in the right cellular spots). The problem is that it's untested on humans, but since they are going north anyway, what have they got to lose? Just in case, though, he warns them not to tell the crew and don't inject themselves until right before they leave the boat in DC.
I always sneak one of these into the clinic when I take a UA.
It's ten days travel to Washington, and in that time the Major and Yoshizawa get to know one another. We learn that both had wives and children who died in the virus back in their homelands, and that both are motivated by their losses. Perhaps buoyed by the secret hope of the vaccine, or just determined to do something noble for mankind, neither of them seems too freaked out about the mission to come. It's not often that a movie shows fear and doubt in the leading men, though, so I can't complain.
I'd hate to have to sleep with a bright light shining right in my face the whole time.
They get to DC now, pulling into the river to get as close as they can. The two men inject themselves with the vaccine and jump into a rubber raft. What we get to see of Washington DC oddly looks like an eastern Canadian city with stock footage shots of the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial inserted in. The condition of the city is mostly overgrown and dilapidated, but with little other sign of great upheaval. Logically, once the people are dead, wildfires from storms and downed power lines would run out of control, laying waste to congested urban areas. There are enough weak gas lines and crumbling filling stations in Washington DC to provide fuel for a conflagration that would race from the beltway to the Potomac in very little time.
One of the scenes where it looks like some serious money was spent.
Just then some light earthquake tremors rattle the area! Even though the predicted Big One is still weeks away, it's clear that pre-shocks are beginning (Yoshizumi forgot to mention that). This is a danger to them as they worry that anything high on the Richter scale will set off the ARS, massive end-all quake or not. I still don't understand this ARS system. If an earthquake will set it off, it doesn't seem too smart a thing to allow it total control over 10,000 nuclear warheads.
Lots of money. I wonder why the Japanese haven't used this White House set more often... and why it's featured here so briefly.
Entry into the abandoned White House is actually pretty easy, just a swift kick to a side door. As is the entry into the elevator that leads down into the bunker. You'd think that this would be a heavily armored access point, but all it takes is about six ounces of C-4 plastic explosives to breach the elevator doors. The power is out (despite the oft-rumored nuclear generator beneath the White House that would keep the lights and power on for generations) and they have to shimmy down the elevator car cables to the bottom. I certainly hope that in real life this place has better security than your typical Ace Hardware store.
Please make sure to pass your gas BEFORE we get in the elevator.
You'd also think that the actual underground bunker containing the nerve center of America's command and control network would be almost impossible to breach under any circumstances, right? Well, here all it takes is a second handful of C-4 on what looks like a simple roll-up garage door and they are in. The problem is that at the moment of setting the timer, another, larger tremor rocks the region. The Major is knocked off his feet and isn't able to clear the blast area fast enough. He ends up mortally wounded, run through by shards of metal from the exploded door!
"Sucks for me."
Yoshizumi reaches him immediately, but there is nothing to be done, the wounds are fatal. Still, he tries and pulls out a shard from the man's bloody chest. Bo Svenson gives what I can say with certainty is the best, most authentic looking man-in-agony face I have ever seen. It's as if they really did impale the actor on a jagged piece of metal and then filmed his reaction. Bravo.
This is why Svenson runs an acting school in LA, turning out such quality talent as Christopher J. Buzzell.
Urged on by his dying comrade, Yoshizumi reaches control room. Again, the controls for turning off the ARS system seem to be just a simple "off" button, clearly marked on the center of a console. I guess this is a convenient plot device, making for much drama as Yoshizumi runs in vain to hit that One Button To Save The World, but it makes us nitpickers boil. He reaches the button, but he's about two seconds too late. That last tremor was bigass enough to set off the ARS sensors and the hounds of atomic destruction are released automatically.
The "Save the World" button. Also seen in You Only Live Twice.
And now we have a few minutes of stock footage missiles being launched as the sound track pounds with discordant bass notes. This is a second example of my pet peeve of video feeds on monitors that simply should not be possible, but I'll let it go. I will, however, note that only one or two of the dozen or so stock footage clips are of actual ICBMs. The rest are of much smaller, shorter-ranged rockets which you wouldn't think the ARS system would have control over (there is even one shot of an atmospheric research sounding rocket being launched, but the fact that I know that doesn't say much for my social life).
Unfortunately he pressed the "Stock Footage" button instead.
Dejected, Yoshizumi pulls out a radio from his backpack and calls the Nereid and tells them to flee as fast as they can to safer waters. I might cry foul at this little radio with its dinky three-inch antennae being able to reach up out of what is surely a radiation-shielded underground bunker and across many miles to a submerged submarine, but I won't. He also tells of the vaccine, and how it might just be working (though you'd think they haven't been exposed to the virus long enough for him to make that clear a statement).
"Moonbase Alpha, we're hosed. Just thought you should know."
Captain McCloud signs off then, but not before telling Yoshizumi to stay where he is until the bombs are done popping. "You're safer there" he says, which is just stupid, in any conceivable nuclear exchange scenario, the amount of megatonnage that would be targeted on Washington DC would be enormous, certainly enough to crush the underground bunker and leave the surrounding land vitrified glass, radioactive for a millennia. But, then again, it's not like Yoshizumi has the time to make it to safety anyway, so he might as well just have a seat in the control room, light up a cigarette, and watch the world come to an end (again) on the big board of flashing lights and dots.
Not too graphically exciting but an entertaining way to watch the apocalypse unfold.
It's just a few minutes before the bombs start exploding across the world, ruining any chance of the Age of Man having an easy recovery. We get copious stock footage clips of nuclear explosions, all from old tests (which is fine and all, virtually every film ever made on this subject has mined these public domain clips, but you'd like to think that a production as expensive as Virus would try and do some SFX shots of miniature cities going boom). It's not shown, but we can assume that Palmer Station was obliterated.
Yoshizumi not only survives the pounding of Washington, but is able to begin a cross-country trek out of the ruins. He works his way south and west, down from the ruins of Washington DC, across America, down through South America to the southern tip. He is, of course, headed towards Antarctica, to the only place he knows where survivors are and, more to the point, back to Marti. In the butchered US version, the great majority of this trek is edited out, but we can assume that he has some typical Cormac McCarthy-esque wasteland experiences (with more than a little bit of McCammon's frighteningly depressing Swan Song).
This is how we're all going to be traveling if gas gets any higher... plus the global warming.
Yoshizumi, by this point, is looking like an extra from The Road Warrior, dressed in filthy rags, limping along with a crooked walking stick, and in serious need of some shampoo. In some isolated valley in Central America he has an existential "conversation" with a skeleton in an abandoned Catholic church about love and life and survival. From this he gains renewed strength to continue his trek south.
I'm glad the malnutrition and lack of proper rest in a 10,000 mile foot trek has not adversely affected his perfect teeth.
Meanwhile, down in Antarctica, the rag-tag survivors are holding on barely. When Palmer was nuked, they lost the most stable environment they had and they have been hard pressed to replace it. We don't get a lot of details about their lives after the nuclear exchange, but by their bedraggled condition we can assume that life has been very hard. When we see them here, their numbers have been reduced to maybe 20 and it doesn't look too good.
Eh, not any worse than most of my memories of Boy Scout camp.
They do, however, have the vaccine, which allows them to finally leave Antarctica. The problem is that there's not much out there to look forward to, what with nuclear winter and smoking radioactive craters and all. Still, they decide to trek north to the South American peninsula and try and find somewhere to settle that has a better climate and more food.
When did she find time to make the headband?
Our film closes with a typical happy ending, Yoshizumi defies the odds and stumbles upon the Antarctic survivors, who by now are along the coast of South America somewhere. Marti sees him coming and they run towards each other along the beach as swoony organ music plays. Their embrace is genuine and we feel uplifted despite our eye-rolling at such a hackneyed cliched ending.
"Rife is Wonderfurr."
Awesome movie. The End.
Written in June 2008 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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