Akademik Vladislav Volkov, a Russian research vessel in the South Pacific, communicates with the orbiting space station Mir. A large energy source traveling through space strikes Mir, killing the cosmonauts and beaming itself down to Volkov. The electrical surge takes over the ship and attacks the crew.
Seven days later, the tugboat Sea Star, captained by alcoholic Robert Everton (Donald Sutherland), loses its uninsured cargo while sailing through a typhoon. Sea Star's crew, led by navigator and ex-Navy officer Kelly Foster (Jamie Lee Curtis) and engineer Steve Baker (William Baldwin), discover the engine room taking on water. When Sea Star takes refuge in the eye of the storm to make repairs, Volkov appears on their radar. Realizing that it could be worth millions in salvage, Everton orders his crew aboard.
On Volkov, most of the electronics have been destroyed and the Russian crew are seemingly missing. Everton orders Steve to help a fellow crewman, Squeaky (Julio Oscar Mechoso), restore power to the ship. Immediately afterward, the ship's anchor drops on its own, sinking Sea Star with deckhand Hiko (Cliff Curtis) and first mate J.W. Woods, Jr. (Marshall Bell) on board. Steve leaves Squeaky to guard the engine room, where he is lured to his death by a robotic, spider-like creature. Steve rescues an injured Hiko, while Woods comes out unscathed.
As Foster treats Hiko in the sick bay, Chief Science Officer Nadia Vinogradova (Joanna Pacuła)—the sole surviving member of Volkov's crew—shoots at the crew and is subdued by Steve. Nadia is hysterical about "it" needing power to travel through the ship and implores the crew to shut down the generators. She attacks Everton and Foster, who subdues her and takes her to the bridge. Steve, Woods, and crewman Richie Mason (Sherman Augustus) go to the engine room to look for Squeaky, but instead stumble upon an automated workshop producing more of the strange robots.
The three are attacked by the robots and what appears to be a gun-wielding Russian crew member. The Russian is revealed to be a cyborg, but the three bring it down with salvaged munitions and take its seemingly dead body to the bridge. Nadia explains that the sentient electrical energy beamed from the Mir took over the ship eight days prior, scanned the ship's computers to find information on killing humans, then used the automated workshops convert Volkov's crew into cyborgs; the one brought to the bridge was the ship's captain and Nadia's husband.
As the storm resumes, the crew head for the computer room. On the way, they are ambushed by a converted Squeaky and a giant robot that kills Woods. The survivors barricade themselves in the communications room, where Richie sends out a mayday; however, Everton shoots out the radio, unwilling to give up his salvage. Foster punches Everton and removes him from command. Richie uses the computers to talk to the alien; it tells them that it is "aware" and sees mankind as a "virus" which it plans to use as "spare parts." This drives Richie insane, causing him to gun down Squeaky and flee. When the remaining crew leave the room, Everton takes the opportunity to talk to the alien, which recognizes him as the "dominant lifeform."
The crew discovers that the alien has moved Volkov 's computer elsewhere in the ship. Realizing that the ship is moving, they return to the bridge by going outside, where Hiko is lost to the typhoon. Meanwhile, Everton is guided to one of the workshops, where he makes a bargain with the alien. Foster identifies Lord Howe Island as Volkov's destination, with Nadia surmising that the alien wishes to seize a British intelligence station from which it could seize control of the world's military forces. As they decide to sink Volkov, the survivors are confronted by the now-cyborg Everton, which they defeat with a thermite hand grenade. They empty the ship's fuel tanks and set explosive charges.
Foster, Steve and Nadia run into Richie. A giant robot suddenly appears and attacks Nadia, Richie and Steve. The robot captures Foster and tortures her for the location of the detonator. A mortally wounded Richie informs Steve that he prepared a jury-rigged ejection seat that can be used for escape. Nadia and Steve rescue Foster, and Nadia sacrifices herself by shooting a flaregun at nearby gas tanks to kill the robot. As Foster and Steve make it out safely by using Richie's ejection seat, which triggers an explosion and sinks Volkov, causing the sentient electricity to disperse in the seawater. Foster and Steve are rescued by a U.S. naval ship.Jamie Lee Curtis as Kelly "Kit" Foster
William Baldwin as Steve Baker
Donald Sutherland as Capt. Robert Everton
Joanna Pacuła as Nadia Vinogradova
Marshall Bell as J. W. Woods Jr.
Sherman Augustus as Richie Mason
Cliff Curtis as Hiko
Julio Oscar Mechoso as Squeaky
Yuri Chervotin as Col. Kominsky
Keith Flippen as Capt. Lonya Rostov
Levan Uchaneishvili as Alexi
The ship used as the Akademik Vladislav Volkov was the retired Missile Range Instrumentation Ship USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg (T-AGM-10). One of the ship's satellite dish antennas was intentionally damaged for the film's final scene where the ship was destroyed. Some of the Cyrillic lettering applied for the film was still visible on the hull before it was sunk on May 27, 2009.
Several lines of dialogue in Virus were improvised. For instance, Richie's emphatic comment that the Volkov has a "fucked-up" antenna resulted from the actor's surprise at the condition of the Vandenberg.
Virus was a critical and commercial flop, grossing less than half of its budget and earning awful reviews. Based on 47 reviews, the film holds a 9% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Most critics found the film derivative and unoriginal.
Reviewers pointed out similarities with the 1998 film Deep Rising. Roger Ebert gave Virus an even lower rating than Deep Rising, which he considered one of the worst films of 1998 and placed on his most-hated list. Many echoed his complaint about the underlit cinematography.
Jamie Lee Curtis herself did not think highly of the film. In an IGN.com interview, Curtis had the following to say about Virus: "That would be the all time piece of shit...It's just dreadful... That's the only good reason to be in bad movies. Then when your friends have [bad] movies you can say 'Ahhhh, I've got the best one.' I'm bringing Virus."
A line of action figures, the Virus Collector Series, was developed by ReSaurus to promote the film. The line included figures of Foster, Baker, Richie, Captain Everton, Captain Alexi, Squeaky and the Goliath Machine (the Goliath set also included a Nadia figure). The captains and Squeaky were built with their cyborg implants, with parts included to restore their human appearance. All of the sets, excluding Goliath and Nadia's, included one or more firearms for their figure. Goliath also featured three sound clips of his lines from the film.
A Europe-only tie-in game, Virus: It is Aware, was also developed and published by Cryo Interactive for the Sony PlayStation. The game is a survival-horror title akin to Resident Evil in concept and to Tomb Raider in control. The game had little to do with the film, apart from the introduction and ending cinematics, which feature creatures infesting a ship and a space station, respectively. The actual game follows a female police officer, Joan, trapped in an infested hotel along with her partner Sutter. The game is generally poorly regarded and has since fallen into obscurity.
The original comics were re-released in graphic novel format with alternate cover artwork based on the film's climax.