Pandemic Cinema

It’s only a movie

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

I tried to resist.

In a world in which movie theaters are closed, I have to resort to my own imagination and ingenuity when it comes to story ideas. While I’m long on opinions and adjectives, I’m not always strong in the imagination department.

When in such a situation, I do what comes naturally to me: I mine the brains of my much smarter friends.

To a person, they have all told me to write a roundup of “pandemic movies.” I have a certain amount of squeamishness about the topic, for obvious reasons. But every time I log into a streaming service, I’m told those are the films folks have high interest in.

Far be it from me not to give the people what they want. If you’d like to spend your time in quarantine watching what happens when other people don’t quarantine, these are the ones to watch.

Because this is my list, I’m going to begin with my favorite in this surprisingly expansive genre: 28 Days Later. Zombie films could easily comprise the entirety of this roundup, but this is one in which the virus aspect is central to the plot. The conceit is a familiar one: A mysterious, highly contagious virus is released accidentally, turns everyone who gets it into rage zombies, all hell breaks lose, society breaks down completely. It could be cheesy and derivative, but in the capable hands of ever-dynamic director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), it’s instead saturated with heart-stopping action and emotion. Boyle’s true genius was twofold: First he cast a quartet of relative but incredibly charismatic unknowns, Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, and Brendan Gleeson, as his survivors. And then he made his zombies fast—like real fast. No more lumbering beasts, these undead will run you down in terrifying fashion. Made for a mere $8 million, Boyle’s speedy zombies took 2002’s box office by storm.

Now it’s time to get real. Probably the most true-to-life film in the pandemic genre is the always-prolific Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 flick Contagion, which is notable for the scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow dies a very grisly death, and also for how it so clearly depicts how easily deadly viruses can spread right alongside conspiracy theories and misinformation.

OK, that’s a little too real.

Backing off slightly from that scarily prescient story of the times in which we currently find ourselves, our next stop on the road of disease dramas is 1995’s Outbreak. For those who weren’t aware (or not yet born), during the 1990s, the disease we most feared running roughshod over society was Ebola, which is a form of hemorrhagic fever. Fueling that fear fire was the 1994 runaway nonfiction bestseller The Hot Zone, an account of the origins of hemorrhagic fevers, and incidents in which they’ve been transmitted to humans. On the heels of that terrifying true-life thriller came Outbreak, which imagines such a disease breaking out in small-town America. CDC and Army scientists played by Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, and Cuba Gooding Jr. descend to try and save the day, but are challenged by a power-mad general who wants to claim the virus and use it as a bioweapon. The plot is more than a little melodramatic, the cast has not held up so well (I’m looking at you, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.), but it remains an entertaining watch. Mostly it’s just my hope that enough people will see that that my jokes about calling people the “Outbreak monkey” whenever they become ill with something contagious will finally land.

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