Home Video Hell
Home Video Hell is where filmic outcasts—straight-to-video, straight-to-VOD, or barely released—spend eternity.
The condemned: The Coronavirus Conspiracy (2021)
The plot: There’s just no way to name your “comedic thriller” The Coronavirus Conspiracy without coming across as either shamelessly exploiting real-life tragedy or banking on wannabe-edgy provocation that comes pre-loaded with flop sweat and desperation. Admittedly, when the trailer exposes the fact that this was shot with all the delicacy and artfulness of your average regional car dealership ad, no one goes in expecting Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; still, the wheezing grasp for timely relevance betrayed by this project’s title and framing makes it feel extra embarrassing, as though your dad picked you up from middle school wearing a Lumineers shirt and blasting the sound from a TikTok video about VSCO girls.
Everything about this movie screams “pre-existing script retro-fitted to incorporate the pandemic as a marketing gimmick.” (A quick Google search bears out that suspicion.) Bearing the wildly unnecessary subtitle of “Safer At Home,” it begins in April 2020, when—as a title card helpfully informs us—America was sheltering in place, and “No one dares to venture outdoors, but only for the bare essentials to survive.” Which is inaccurate on both a grammatical and historical level, but only for the bare essentials of the plot to survive. It ends with the words, “We demand to know who is at fault for this chaos…”, which, really? I’ll take “a real bastard of a virus” for $1,000.
The story follows a guy (we never get anyone’s name) who wakes up chained to his own bed, with notes telling him he’s safe at home and his wife is fine. But when he sees his phone and manages to call his wife to come upstairs and free him, she says she’s standing in their bedroom and can’t see him anywhere. So far, so Twilight Zone-ish; soon, a man dressed in a hazmat suit (but just a normal mask on his face, so) storms in, addressing his captive as “Zookeeper,” and demanding he “confess” his crimes, revealing only that he’s an economist. After promising to behave, the economist frees him—or rather, tells him he’s free, at which point the zookeeper looks down and notices his chains have vanished.
After some fairly interminable back-and-forth, in which the zookeeper tries and fails to escape (he keeps “blipping” back into the house whenever he walks out the front door), and the economist harangues him about the importance of memes (no, really), we finally get the explanation of what’s happening—more than a third of the way into the film. As it turns out, our entire reality is a computer simulation (yeah, it’s that shaky idea) created by aliens after the death of Harambe, the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 and memed into oblivion shortly afterward. See, Harambe was actually an alien visitor, and a royal one at that, so when the zookeeper shot him, the aliens blew up the real Earth and created this false one as a testing ground to run various disaster scenarios—and once they’ve got all the data they need, they’ll end the simulation. And the economist, who is actually also an alien gorilla, was tasked with controlling the memes about Harambe, but they spun out of control during the “Great meme war” (I know, I know), so his consciousness was placed inside this digital prison on the same computer server, where he was able to eventually develop the code to kidnap the zookeeper who started all this, in hopes of using him as a bargaining chip to regain his freedom from the alien overlords. (They’re literally programmed into his phone as “overlords.”)
If you got all that, congratulations, because it’s all a long walk to the one-note joke that constitutes the back half of the film. The fact that the zookeeper was able to call his wife out in the simulacra of the real world means the system is breaking down, and they only have about an hour before the overlords pull the plug on “Earth.” But rather than work together to contact the overlords and get out of there, the zookeeper provokes the economist, saying that if the aliens hadn’t interfered, humanity would’ve been just fine. So the economist reboots the simulation to create a world where Harambe never died. But it’s soon revealed things would’ve gone just as badly, if not worse, with the survival of the alien gorilla maintained. (For example, Dr. Phil becomes president of the United States.) So they reboot the simulation again, this time to test the economist’s hypothesis that humanity’s downfall isn’t because of the aliens, but rather the inherent shittiness of people. Once again, it’s revealed that things would’ve been even worse. (Meet President Kid Rock.)
And on they go, over and over, screaming and rebooting, every time going back further in time and making things even worse. It devolves into an endless shouting match, until they’re confronted by Harambe himself (don’t ask), who tells them he’d rather be dead than listen to them yell at each other some more. (“It drove me fucking bananas,” the gorilla tells them; same, Harambe, same.) After mourning the end, they come up with a last-second fix to save humanity—or so they think, anyway. It doesn’t really matter by this point. Much like the royal alien visitor, you’ll just want this to be over.
Over-the-top box copy: As with last month’s Home Video Hell about an alternate-reality Hillary Clinton working at an Alaskan fishery, there don’t appear to be any DVD copies of the movie available yet. This could change; despite the film being available to stream on demand, its distributor’s website says “DVD coming soon.” However, I do love the fact that, under the “publicity” section of the site, there are two one-word excerpts from coverage of the movie describing it as “nervy” and “timely”—followed by one from The Hollywood Reporter that just says, “…thriller” (the ellipses are really what make that one great).
The descent: In theory, Home Video Hell is meant to be a column all about keeping an eye out for possible diamonds in the rough of the world of low-budget cinema, a way to sift through all the rubbish and detritus in hopes of stumbling upon something worth watching. And sometimes that happens! But just as often, a movie ends up here because I get a press email, scan the trailer, and think, “Oh, dear god, what happened here.”
And that’s exactly the case in this instance, where I saw there was a sci-fi comedy titled The Coronavirus Conspiracy, and realized it necessitated a watch. You always hope for some ridiculous fun, whether of the “secretly good” or so-bad-it’s-good variety, when tackling these seemingly disastrous projects. But hey, sometimes we all get stuck behind a really slow-moving car in traffic, right? The same principle applies, here.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Let’s all take a minute to appreciate that the writer-director of The Coronavirus Conspiracy has the presumably self-chosen stage name James Sunshine, yet somehow is not also a porn director. (He’s actually a story producer on well-known reality TV programs like Big Brother and MasterChef, making his feature-film debut behind the camera.) Beyond that, you may have seen either of the stars of this two-hander, Joseph D. Reitman and Joe Lehr, pop up in small roles on any number of TV shows and movies. Lehr, in particular, was not only one of the creators and stars of the short-lived TBS sitcom 10 Items Or Less, but one of the honest-to-God original Geico Cavemen, and someone whom The A.V. Club interviewed back in 2008. So that’s fun.
The execution: It’s too bad Lehr was only in front of the camera instead of helping out with the script, because his solid improv-comedy background surely would’ve come in handy in explaining to Sunshine that there’s no surer way to sandbag a comedy scene than to have it devolve into a shouting match. Sure, the whole thing is badly overlit, framed awkwardly (you can tell it was shot during the early days of on-set COVID safety protocols), and edited like a generic sitcom (when it’s not throwing in gratuitous “computer glitch” effects), but the script is really where the biggest problems lie. It’s not an exaggeration to say the entire second half of the film is largely composed of two men bellowing at each other—with occasional pauses for the zookeeper to yell at his wife over the phone, making him an even less tolerable character than he already was. I’m going to assume Sunshine thought this was a steady game of heightening for comic effect; it doesn’t work.
Still, there’s some unintentional laughter sparked by the movie (and to be fair, a few intentional chuckles, too, mostly from just how outlandish it all gets). When the zookeeper comes to at the beginning, as I mentioned, he’s chained up. But take a look at these chains, and see if it doesn’t at least trigger a sense of, “Um, are we supposed to take this at all seriously?” Someone clearly didn’t get their merit badge in “not making it look like you lazily looped some paper clips around wrists.”
Perhaps now is as good a time as any to talk about just how much time this damn movie spends talking about memes. During their early conversations, the economist rants interminably about memes—their value, their efficacy, their gradual transformation from in-joke to context-less Rorschach test of absurdism—and spends an awful lot of time trying to show off memes he’s made. (A telling example of this film’s sense of humor comes from a lengthy scene where the economist tries to explain how, “You can take any quote, and it’s 10 times funnier if you say it was taken the day before 9/11.”) Buried deep in this morass is an interesting idea about how a gradual stripping of context can evacuate any history from digital communication, but you’re not gonna find it in exchanges like this:
The thing is, there’s actually real potential in all of this. “Murder hornets, Carole Baskin… when did everything end up feeling fucked all the time?” one of the characters says, and in that line there’s a germ of profound depth, tied to the way contemporary life always seems to be spinning out of control, accelerated by online culture and the fragmentation of agreed-upon norms and facts from mass society. Movies like The Matrix made hay of this; The Coronavirus Conspiracy makes cow pies. Look, the idea that the death of Harambe was some flashpoint for humanity’s end is a nice bit of ridiculousness, so it’s not as though the film doesn’t know enough to throw up its hands and say “Let’s get silly.” Hell, I could see the movie being pilfered for GIFs; a scene like this could make for a fine bit of meme-like stupidity in its own right:
Bonus points should be awarded for how firmly it commits to its own goofy formula. (“So I’ve been kidnapped by an alien monkey economist,” goes one such line.) But then it just can’t help itself, with stupid and limp sight gags like the phone number for the overlords:
And that’s the sort of the mindset that ends up taking over in the back half of the film. Two guys, increasingly bug-eyed, cursing at top volume while they reset the world in progressively more lunkheaded ways, thereby sapping any goodwill The Coronavirus Conspiracy might have engendered with an amusing premise and the occasional joke that doesn’t bomb. At one point during the climactic montage, the film cuts to the economist and the zookeeper just making faces at each other, as though someone accidentally spliced in a bit of the film’s gag reel.
But if you want to get a flavor for it, here’s an excerpt of the montage, revealing the fallout from how they reset the simulation:
Finally, it sputters out. The movie ends, and as the credits roll, “Joshua Tree” by the camp performer Popstar Nima plays—and, unlike when it first ran over the opening credits, the lyrics now include the refrain, “What I mean is, I really like your penis, and I just want to see it again.” Nothing wrong with that sentiment, but it’s obviously here because Sunshine thought it was funny, despite lacking any relevance to the movie that preceded it. Like The Coronavirus Conspiracy itself, with its ham-fisted integration of a global pandemic, it’s just a hail-mary gambit.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Not a chance.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Nope. This release stands alone on its own merits. Oh, well.