NSF Representative David M. Bresnahan
[Big Dead Place] claims that John Carpenter’s The Thing is the most important film about industrial life in Antarctica, but I simply must disagree. While it does lack the flashy flamethrowers of The Thing, Virus provides a far more accurate portrayal of life in Antarctica, not to mention a far more plausible plot line and substantive issues to consider in this era of terrorism.
The central player in the film is a virus developed by Cold War-era U.S. military scientists to be used as a weapon. It mimics other viruses, such as the flu, and rapidly spreads disease. When some shady agents try to steal the virus, their mission runs amok and the virus is released and rapidly spreads through Europe, where it is mistaken for the Italian flu. Everyone in Europe dies and the disease soon spreads to the rest of the world. The U.S. government suspects the Soviets of releasing the virus and of plotting to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.
In the Oval Office, strewn with tissues, and as more and more government officials fall, literally, to the virus, the President suddenly realizes that, because the virus is not viable at temperatures below -10°C, the only safe people in the world are those in Antarctica. He immediately makes an all-station radio call to Antarctica and tells the people to stay there and not to accept any outsiders. The President then leaves them with the wise words, “Try to work it out together.”
Upon receiving the radio call, everyone on the continent makes their way to Palmer Station–855 men, and 8 women. They have enough food to last them two years, and they also happen to have an icebreaker that got stuck in the ice the summer before.
Lurking in the waters just off Palmer, however, is a Soviet submarine, and the entire crew is sick with the Italian flu. When the station refuses the crew medical assistance, the submarine captain threatens to come ashore anyway. But, just then, a British submarine shows up and blows the Soviet submarine to bits. Palmer than asks the British sub if its crew is infected with the virus. Since the crew isn’t infected, Palmer invites them ashore for a bit of liberty.
Meanwhile, the powers-that-be at Palmer determine that because women are “the most valuable natural resource in this new world,” the eight women on station will simply have to “accommodate more than one man.” One-to-one relationships won’t be possible anymore. Needless to say, after that decision, lots of babies start showing up on station.
But dangers in the world beyond continue to grow. The Soviets suspect Palmer Station to be a secret weapons base and aim their nuclear missiles at Palmer. With everyone in the world dead, you wouldn’t think this would be a concern, but it turns out that those sneaky Soviets devised an automatic response system so sensitive it could be triggered by an earthquake, and there’s a very good chance that a tectonic situation off the coast of Washington, DC, will result in a major earthquake. So, an American guy and a Japanese guy named Yoshuzumi (who is in love with one of the women on station even though he can’t have her to himself) jump into the submarine and head out to save the world. The women and children board the icebreaker, along with a skeleton crew, and sail in search of a safe place to live.
Yoshuzumi and the American guy fail to reach the U.S. weapon system in time to cancel the U.S. counter-strike and the earthquake hits. The American dies and both the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals are launched and Palmer gets wiped out. In a Love Story-meets-The Morning After twist, Yoshuzumi walks from Washington to Patagonia and finds the group that fled Palmer on the icebreaker. His love, a Norwegian woman, sees him stumbling on the horizon and she runs to him, embracing him in her loving arms as the screen fades to black.
So, as you can see, Virus is infinitely more complicated —intellectual, if you will— than The Thing. Of course, like The Thing, it does introduce some new Antarctic myths and mysteries. For example, while it would be totally cool to have readily accessible flamethrowers on station, we don’t. In Virus, it’s the readily available baby clothes that bewilder. Where did they get all those little booties? And it was dark on Christmas day –a slight cinematic oversight, or perhaps consciously done so as not to confuse northern-hemisphere audiences.
But these minor glitches aside, Virus is far and away the superior Antarctic film for it nails other aspects of Antarctic life perfectly. In The Thing, there’s hardly any mention of science, while Virus is all science –biology, plate tectonics, immunology. We also have some ships stuck in the ice. And, notably absent in The Thing, there are women in Virus, not a lot, but some. And, despite all the best efforts at international cooperation, no one really wants the Russians around.
But what truly makes Virus great is its timely message. In this day and age of terrorism and biological warfare, we Antarcticans might actually have to save the world one day. Think about it, our fearless SAR team might have to venture out into a devastated world to save civilization from itself. Or we might have to repopulate the world. Given that biological weapons are a far greater threat to our society than some crazed, polymorphic alien, Virus could actually be considered a training film for us.
So, I hope that [Big Dead Place] will reconsider [its] claim about The Thing and recognize Virus for the fantastic cinematic tour-de-force that it is.