Sunday, November 02, 2008

Tackling the Twelve: Virus



I didn't realise until some time after I had watched it that Kinji Fukasaku's "Virus" (1980) is a disaster movie. A disaster movie of the Irwin Allen school, with similarities to "Airport" and "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno". I think it may have been the film's Japanese origins that distracted me. Or the strange little bursts of poetry and remorseless anti-sentiment that occur throughout the film, which are entirely un-Hollywood. But it is a disaster movie. It has a one-word title, a cast of International b-movie hamsters, features a disparate group of characters huddling together for survival, and a big tense action climax. Sort of.

The film traces the outbreak of a virus which destroys all animal life on the planet except for a group of (800 or so) scientists and military personnel on a set of research stations in Antarctica. Their struggle to survive is the principle concern of the films second half. The first half is pacier as the Virus is released - amidst some camp if oh-so-serious spy shenanigans in East Germany - and begins its steady spread. That spread is indicated by lots of library footage of rioting in European cities. The story is told in a series of brief vignettes without any immediate characters as we see just how the virus was allowed to escape and learn how it cannot be stopped. There is a montage of newspaper headlines. There are tense, sweaty scenes from the Oval Office, scenes of doctors collapsing, a haunting shot of a packed crowd of women brandishing their babies while they scream. Here the Japanese fascination with Apocalypse is expressed in scenes of a Tokyo deserted but for rotting corpses, of a nightclub crowded with hysterical dancers (a girl rips off her blouse to go - the horror - topless!), a hospital overwhelmed by the volume of patients, of a temple crowded with worshippers praying for a miracle, of piles of corpses burned by a flamethrower-wielding soldier. There is a long series of shots of dead cities with bodycounts subtitled underneath.

It is mostly deadpan and unsentimental. But then there are scenes like the one where the Japanese Antarctic research station desperately try to raise anybody they can on the radio. Finally they find a small boy - a five-year old American called Toby - broadcasting on his father's radio. In a tiny, shaky, sickeningly cute American voice (which sounds like it may be that of an adult woman), he repeatedly asks if anyone is listening, says he doesn't feel so good, and that his father is lying down in the corner but won't move, his mother gone. The Japanese scream into the microphone that they can hear. But Toby is holding down the "transmit" button and cannot hear them. Finally, horribly, he shoots himself with his father's gun to the anguish of the Japanese. This is risably melodramatic and not a little comedic, and yet it is unexpectedly powerful too. The film is so casual about its pessimism and its epic ambition that its forays for emotion are disarmingly effective.



Anyway, the world dies. All that is left are the 865 men and 8 women in Antarctica, who are forced to stay there because the virus is still alive in the rest of the world, and only the extreme cold can keep it at bay. One of the first items on their agenda
is sex. The women are told that they will have to service all of the men in turn, that conventional relationships will therefore be impossible, and that they will be "breeders" for the human race. They don't all take it so well. One of the women, Maric (Olivia Hussey), a Norwegian, falls in love with one of the Japanese scientists, Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari) and their dilemma is spelled out plainly when an intimate if halting exchange is interrupted by a young sailor who has an appointment with her. Yoshizumi is a Geologist and his profession is relevant in the set-up for the action climax, which involves an Earthquake striking Washington DC, setting off America's defence system and beginning a Nuclear War between the now dead Superpowers which will destroy what is left of the world, including the Antarctic haven the survivors have made for themselves. Yoshizumi and a big macho American named Carter (Bo Svenson) volunteer for the suicide mission of disabling the American system, and make a mad submarine dash for a still infected Washington. Well, it all goes wrong, the Nukes Launch and Fukasaku indulges in some good old Japanese Nuclear Armageddon stuff - a montage of mushroom clouds, cities instantly vaporised, etc.

Perhaps the best part of the film is the last ten or fifteen minutes, wherein a miraculously alive Yoshizumi walks - walks! - from Washington, down through North America, across Central America, down through the Andes to the southern tip of the Americas in Chile or Argentina in search of Maric and other survivors. His progress, over a few years, obviously, finds him a long-haried, limping ragamuffin clad in shreds of clothing, having mental conversations with skeletons in deserted South American churches (we see subtitles of what is "Said"). He is depicted at Machu Picchu, crossing the snowiest Andean peaks, fishing with a club in the ocean. There is a happy ending, of sorts, and a cheesy ballad over the credits.

Its a mixed bag. Some of it is beautiful - shots of Yoshizumi against bloody sunsets on his long trek, hysteria in Italy as the plague takes hold. But much of it looks like a tv movie. Some of it is affecting, even moving, but other scenes are comic, or overly camp. It does have ancillary pleasures. That cast of has-been American stars includes Robert Vaughan, Henry Silva (as a hilariously evil General) George Kennedy and Glenn Ford. Edward James Olmos turns up as a Chilean Naval Officer who looks like Carlos Santana and starts a fight with his Argentine counterpart. Sonny Chiba sports a fetching beard. Chuck Connors, one of the most American of actors, so American he could easily have been cast as Steve Rogers in a Captain America movie, so American he must have been a quarterback for his high school Football team, so American that he played professional basketball and Baseball, so American that his name is Chuck Connors, for God's sake, that Chuck Connors - he plays a British submarine commander. I didn't notice any attempt at an accent, though, thankfully.
When it was released it was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made. It flopped spectacularly. Possibly because it is too International, has a whiff of compromise in almost every facet. But it is interesting, and occasionally very good. And one of the most pessimistic films I've ever seen, in its cheerful way.

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4 Comments:

Blogger jamesinseoul said...

So how are you getting on with tracking done the 12? Got many gaps?

2:51 am  
Blogger David N said...

10 gaps. But I'll get there.

12:58 am  
Blogger jamesinseoul said...

I saw a couple on bit torrent, if you're interested...

11:48 am  
Blogger JC said...

I thought that Virus felt rather more modern than its actual year - 1980. It has dated fairly well.

There were some oddities, notably the casting of a Swede as an American (Bo Svenson), and an American as a Britain (Chuck Connors). There were also some unlikely coincides or timings - the precise prediction of an earthquake, the earthquake occurring just when the submarine reaches Washington, the missiles launching the second the Jap tried to disarm them, and him finding the survivors by accident in the middle of Patagonia.

Some omissions were also glaring - forgetting about the men on the other Antarctic stations, and anyone in (North) Polar stations, Eskimos, etc. If the virus did not develop below 5 degrees (centigrade) everyone well within the arctic circle would be safe. Yet Patagonia itself is relatively warm, exceeding the fatal 5 degrees in summer. The antidote was untested, and would not have been given to the survivors. But as it was they should have known that they were immune, and felt free to stray from Patagonia.

Despite many gripes, I felt that overall it was an intriguing and reasonably solidly made film.

4:45 am  

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