Of all the things this wretched disease has taken from us, the pandemic movie ranks among the least essential. But, for a few years at least, we should brace ourselves to elbow-bump the genre goodbye.
In 2021, we all know exactly what a pandemic is. And, for the most part, it is nothing like the movies. The undead do not roam the streets. Infected monkeys are not leaping from host to host. The vaccine was created without Brad Pitt having to tiptoe gingerly through a zombie-infested laboratory. As tragic as Covid has been, it has manifested itself mainly in the form of endless drudgery, with everyone stuck at home or following arrows around supermarkets. Unless there emerges a bizarre public hunger for films in which tired parents try to connect their tablets to Google Classroom during a phone call with their boss, it is hard to think that anyone will want to watch the reality of this pandemic reflected back at them.
However, this is not the first time that movies have endured a pandemic. There is little evidence that people in the midst of the flu of 1918-20, when cinema was in its infancy, went crazy for stories about it. The most notable artefact in the possession of the BFI, for instance, is Dr Wise on Influenza, an 18-minute silent public-information film from 1919 in which a prototypical Chris Whitty figure lectures the public on the importance of washing their hands and wearing face masks. It is intriguing enough when viewed through the prism of Covid, but not necessarily the first thing you would pick to watch of an evening.
The same may be true today. Thomas Doherty, a cultural historian at Brandeis University outside Boston, Massachusetts, thinks our taste for infection-related movies will be dented for a while to come. “I don’t want to watch any scenario involving a virus or a vaccine,” he says. “In terms of apocalyptic fantasy projections, my sense is that dragons and space aliens and Liam Neeson killing people will be a lot more box office-friendly than guys in white lab coats fighting a deadly disease.”
In the years following the 1918 outbreak, however, as the pandemic became less of a preoccupation in people’s lives, cinema began to mine the idea for entertainment. In 1933’s It’s Great to be Alive, a just-dumped pilot lands his plane to discover that an illness has wiped out every other man on Earth, leaving him to singlehandedly repopulate the planet. By 1937, enough distance had opened up to allow Skeleton on Horseback to use the spread of an infectious disease to stand in for the rise of fascism. By 1950, Hollywood had gained enough confidence to call Panic in the Streets – a Contagion-style drama about police officers racing to prevent New Orleans from a pneumonic plague – “the screen excitement of the year”.
But the modern pandemic film did not arrive until the 70s. Although Planet of the Apes hinted at it, 1971’s one-two punch of The Omega Man and The Andromeda Strain laid down the blueprint. In the former, Charlton Heston plays a lone survivor of biological warfare who roams around Los Angeles murdering mutants. In the latter, a team of scientists try to prevent the people of Earth from having their blood crystallised by an alien pathogen, then discover that the best way to beat it is to drink cooking fuel.
At that point, the pandemic movie mutated and became anything its creators wanted it to be. In 1976’s The Cassandra Crossing, an infectious disease is the MacGuffin that allows a train full of A-list actors to speed perilously across mainland Europe. In 1973’s The Crazies, a crashed bioweapon lets George A Romero make a zombie movie without any zombies in it. In 1987’s Epidemic, Lars von Trier uses the plague – very Lars von Trierishly – to play himself in a film about how he wrote a screenplay for a film about the plague. And never forget 2008’s The Happening, in which trees learn to communicate with one another in a doomed attempt to murder Mark Wahlberg.
Even films with dry, scientific-sounding titles get people munching popcorn. Infection is a 2004 Japanese horror movie about a virus that turns people into slime. Quarantine, from 2008, is a found-footage horror about a rabies-spreading doomsday cult. Even 1995’s quasi-Ebola film Outbreak – long considered the go-to pandemic movie for its portrayal of the US army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases – is very silly. Not only does it show the vaccine being created in a matter of seconds and immediately alleviating all symptoms upon injection, but large portions of it take the form of a literal monkey chase.
It makes sense that, when lockdown kicked in a year ago, no one turned to any of these films for comfort. Instead, everyone – including, as he recently admitted, Matt Hancock – rushed to rewatch Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller about a deadly flu that sweeps the world.
This is because, unlike many other pandemic films, it has a solid grounding in science. One character explains the concept of the R number in impressive depth. Another spreads misinformation to devastating effect. Governments fight to create and administer an unprecedented vaccine. Viewed in retrospect, Contagion feels like a Covid play-by-play. Back when the presiding emotions were uncertainty and fear, Contagion became something to grab hold of. True, at the end of the film, humanity learns nothing and we see the seeds of a new pandemic being sown, but let’s all do our best to ignore that.
The other cinematic reference point cited frequently during the past 12 months has been Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, from 2006. This is less for the nature of its disease (in the film, the global population loses the ability to conceive children) or for the baroque unbroken shots of military firefights that act as a finale and more for the greyscale grimness of the world in which it is set.
To visit a drive-through Covid testing site, with its miserable labyrinth of checkpoints and warning signs, is to be reminded of Children of Men. To watch the government try to instil a desperate, rictus-grin patriotism in a broken and exhausted population is to be reminded of Children of Men. Even to see faded London 2012 nostalgia clung to as a symbol of better times is to be reminded of Children of Men. Perhaps more than any other pandemic film, Children of Men deserves to be held up as the one that got it right.
But we should not be too fearful for the future of the pandemic movie. After all, cinema has bounced back before. The 1918 flu reached its final peak in early 1920. Only two years later, FW Murnau released Nosferatu, in which a hideous vampire unleashes a deadly plague across a German town. Yes, the symbolism might be a little heavy-handed, but anyone in their right mind would watch that over Dr Wise on Influenza.
Doherty says we may be in for something similar. “Eventually, Hollywood will reboot Covid for entertainment purposes,” he says. “Either with melodramas that explicitly revisit the time, or – God help us – the inevitable romcom meet-cute in quarantine, or allegorical plague thrillers that up the ante and the body count.
“What you need for good pandemic-driven motion picture entertainment is panic in the streets, cartloads of corpses and really grisly symptoms. But if I had to bet, I’d wager that there’ll be a cultural lag of a few years on either option.”
So, let’s try not to get carried away. The pandemic movie may be in quarantine, but the world will soon be overwhelmed with rabid monkey films again – just as it should be.