The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Vandenberg tracking ship
The decommissioned space tracking ship Vandenberg, which had a starring role in the movie Virus, is about to be sunk to create an artificial reef. (credit: ARK)

V is for Virus, Volkov, and Vandenberg

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A crew of working-class misfits on a beat up old tub encounters a massive derelict ship whose crew is either dead or missing. They investigate and awake an Ancient Unspeakable Evil(™) that begins killing them one by one…

Yes, it’s the plot of the 1979 movie Alien, and the 1997 movie Event Horizon, and probably half a dozen other movies since then (you can throw in John Carpenter’s terribly underrated 1982 movie The Thing for good measure). In essence, it’s the classic haunted house story placed in a science fiction setting.

It was also the plot of the 1999 movie Virus, based on a graphic novel of the same name (and bearing uncanny resemblance to the lame, low-budget 1989 movie Moontrap). The movie featured the ever lovely Jamie Lee Curtis, who once referred to Virus as the worst movie she ever made (apparently her memory is selective: she forgot Blue Steel, Halloween H2O, and the execrable Perfect). And perhaps the biggest strike against it is that it also features William Baldwin, of the evil Baldwin brothers. Although Alec is the most famous and successful of the Baldwins, he has several lesser brothers who for unknown reasons also have managed to get jobs in Hollywood, probably through a pact with Mephistopheles. (As everybody knows, the only good Baldwin is the Hero of Canton Adam Baldwin, who, although he shares the same last name, is fortunately unrelated to the brothers Baldwin.)

Virus never claimed to be anything other than a B-grade science fiction film, and in this category it actually does reasonably well.

Virus starts with the crew of an ocean-going tug caught in a typhoon in the South Pacific. After losing their cargo and taking on water they enter the eye of the storm where they encounter the abandoned Russian science ship Academician Vladislav Volkov. The crew of the tug decides to claim the ship for salvage on the high seas and seek a reward. But they soon encounter a lone surviving Russian scientist who explains that seven days earlier during a transmission from the Mir space station an alien lifeform was electronically transmitted to the ship. It took over the computers, killed most of the crew (using the ship’s halon firefighting system to suffocate many of them), and then began assembling cyborgs out of equipment and the remains of the dead humans aboard. The virus is not the electronic lifeform, rather, it’s how the lifeform views the humans within its new ship body—parasitic intruders that must be exterminated. You can predict the rest: our working-class heroes get picked off one by one until only two survivors remain. They blow up the ship as they rocket to safety in an escape pod. Yes, it’s the same ending as Alien—or many other haunted house movies where the heroine survives as the house goes up in flames.

Despite the clichéd plot and the testimony of the lovely Jamie Lee Curtis, Virus does have its redeeming qualities. There are essentially two kinds of bad movies—those that are totally awful because of bad actors, low budgets, and untalented writing and direction, and those that are bad because they aspire to be something and fail miserably; they’re pretentious and preachy and fall flat despite their talent and money (see: Pay It Forward). Virus never claimed to be anything other than a B-grade science fiction film, and in this category it actually does reasonably well.

First the negatives: None of the actors are A-listers and their performances are unremarkable. The movie starred Donald Sutherland as the tugboat captain, although, to steal a classic line from Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s probably more accurate to say that most of the time the camera was pointed at Donald Sutherland. Sutherland sleepwalks through much of the film, and when he does exhibit some energy he seems to slip in and out of some indistinguishable seadog accent. Part of this is simply poor dialogue and writing; his character’s willingness to sell out his crew to a rampaging, murderous alien machine in return for the ship’s salvage rights does not make any sense—even the most selfish crook knows that money is worthless if you’re dead. Jamie Lee Curtis was supposed to play the Lieutenant Ripley role from Alien, but she never really got enough to work with, and the attempt to put her in some kind of flirtatious relationship with a crewmate never shows much spark. Surprisingly, William Baldwin manages to hold his own in this crowd. The other characters are supposed to be distinct, well, characters, and they are. They just are not very well written. The constant griping about money is a cliché straight from Alien. Unfortunately, the characters had hints of personality that never really got explored. For instance, Hiko, played by Cliff Curtis, is covered with Maori warrior tattoos, but despite his fierce appearance, turns out to be more laid back, compassionate, and heroic than one would expect. But overall, the script really could have benefited from a dialogue rewrite.

However, there are also positives. The producer was Gale Anne Hurd, who at one time was married to James Cameron and shares his eye for mechanical detail and tech noir. The Volkov is crammed with machinery and robots. Much of the movie was filmed on the mothballed American missile tracking ship Vandenberg—more on this in a moment—and it made for an authentic and interesting setting; it looks like a space tracking ship because it is a space tracking ship. The production standards were high, as were the special effects. The movie was filmed at a time when most film and television productions were switching to computer effects, but Virus relied heavily upon model work and the special effects had a higher level of realism than other films produced at the same time. The effects team actually built a 14.3-meter (47-foot) long model of the Volkov using the hull of the Benthic Explorer supertanker model from James Cameron’s 1989 movie The Abyss, and for some key shots they towed the model out to sea off the coast of Long Beach, California. Many of the practical shots were filmed on the Vandenberg itself and when the actors run around the decks of a tracking ship it does not look like a redressed freighter—it looks as accurate as it could possibly be. In fact, it appears as if much of the interior footage was actually shot on the ship, with the money the production saved on sets being plowed into the special effects.

Much of the movie was filmed on the mothballed American missile tracking ship Vandenberg and it made for an authentic and interesting setting; it looks like a space tracking ship because it is a space tracking ship.

The premise, although not original, still has its clever aspects. A lifeform that replicates itself through electronic machinery is naturally going to require sophisticated machinery to survive, so a lawnmower or cappuccino maker is not going to suffice (although I have battled cars that I suspected were possessed by an alien entity). Therefore, it is the lifeform’s good fortune that of all the ships it could encounter, it happens to reach the one that is equipped with robot and machine shops and plenty of spare parts, mechanical and human.

If you can suspend your brain for an hour and a half, then Virus is a reasonably enjoyable film. But so what? Other than yet another connection between science fiction and real world space travel, who cares about a B-grade sci-fi flick that is nearly a decade old?

Well, this story about Virus is prompted by an impending death. The Vandenberg is headed for the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida Keys in only a few months. She has been moored in Virginia’s James River for a decade and a half now, except for the brief period when she was towed to Norfolk for filming key scenes for Virus. For filming, one of her large satellite dishes was removed and draped over her superstructure. But soon she will be towed to Colonna’s Shipyard where workers will begin removing environmentally unsafe materials and preparing her for sinking. When that work is complete she will be towed down the East Coast and around the Florida peninsula to the Keys, moored, and flooded in relatively shallow water to serve as a recreational diving attraction. Her large tracking dishes will remain intact, and serve as an interesting sight for recreational divers who got the old aircraft carrier Oriskany as a new diving attraction on the Gulf Coast last year.

The Vandenberg was built during World War 2 as the USS General Harry Taylor, a troop transport, and commissioned in May 1944. In 1946 she was decommissioned, but placed back into service six years later. She was removed from service in September 1957. Four years later she was transferred to the US Air Force and converted to a missile range instrumentation ship and renamed the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, placed in service by the Navy in July 1964.

She may have been a star in an unremarkable B-grade science fiction film, but the Vandenberg will soon be a center of attention again.

The conversion was extensive. The tracking systems required the installation of new power generators and air conditioning. The mounts for the three large tracking dishes required special bracings that ran all the way to her keel. All the extra topweight required additional ballast to keep her stable. Vandenberg was equipped with a state of the art military grade Univac computer and half of her 200-man crew was devoted to the tracking systems. After over two decades of service, most of it serving far downrange from Cape Canaveral, she was retired in the 1980s and struck from the Naval Register in 1993, laid up in the James River where she sat, slowly rusting, until the producers of Virus came along.

She may have been a star in an unremarkable B-grade science fiction film, but the Vandenberg will soon be a center of attention again—only this time it will be underwater, and she will host a broad range of alien lifeforms.