Hasitha Fernando on pandemics in film…
The devastating effect of the recent outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) cannot be overstated. With the disease continuing to spread like wildfire, multiple countries have been brought to their knees, their economies in shambles and casualty numbers rising. Over the years Hollywood has put forth myriad films that deals with such disease epidemics. Whilst some are almost eerily prophetic in nature, there are others at the opposite end of the spectrum, which are sometimes hilariously outlandish. So, without further ado here are ‘Ten Great Films Based on Disease Outbreaks’ in no discernible order. And if they don’t convince you to stock up on adequate food and hand sanitizer, then I’m afraid you have a death wish my friend.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Starring Jude Law, Matt Damon, Marion Cottillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Winslet.
Ever since the commencement of the COVID-19 disease outbreak, Contagion has experienced an upsurge in popularity due to the striking similarities its narrative bears, with what was transpiring the world over in real life. The film’s realism can be chiefly attributed to the past SARS and swine-flu epidemics, upon which the sharp script crafted by Scott Z. Burns is based. Featuring a star-studded ensemble cast, the film takes an uncompromising look on the catastrophic repercussions of a pandemic gone out of control in the modern age. Soderbergh’s decision to strip the film of over-the-top Hollywoodized elements and opting to go with a more grounded approach adds a sense of overwhelming unease that cannot be described. It’s the unease that creeps up on you when you realize that what’s happening onscreen… is chillingly familiar to reality. And therein lies its brilliance; because nothing is more disturbing and scarier than cold, hard reality. It is a masterclass in filmmaking whose potent effect will stay with you, long after the credits roll.
28 Days Later (2002)
Directed by Danny Boyle.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns, and Brendon Gleeson.
Written by the indefatigable Andrew Garland, 28 Days Later follows a group of survivors as they navigate through the post-apocalyptic landscape of England, following the accidental release of a rage-inducing virus. In a lot of ways, 28 Days Later is directly responsible for reinvigorating the zombie-horror genre, updating it for a modern audience. And yes, there’s no arguing about the fact that this ‘is’ a zombie-horror flick, through and through. But at its very core, what makes 28 Days Later utterly riveting is the social commentary that has been interwoven into its narrative. It is a deep-dive exploration of the deleterious consequences of societal collapse, in the wake of a catastrophic event. Boyle is in top form here, masterfully bringing Garland’s taut script to life with his vision and skill, creating an immersive contemporary world shot to proverbial hell. It is a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive and moral codes, simply cease to exist. 28 Days Later has more in common with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies than George A. Romero films, but that’s exactly what makes it a masterpiece.
Directed Fernando Meirelles.
Starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover, and Alice Braga.
Blindness is based on the 1995 novel of the same name written by Portuguese author José Saramago. And as the name implies the films deals with a fictional disease epidemic called the ‘white-sickness’ which leaves the infected visually impaired, for no apparent reason. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ efforts are mostly intimate character driven affairs interlaced with strong social commentary and Blindness, is no different. Using the backdrop of the outbreak Meirelles explores the darker-side of humanity, eschewing the more controversial aspects of the source material. Even though none of the main characters have names or backstories to them, poignant performances from the leads, keep the audience invested in the film at all times. Make no mistake, this isn’t an easy watch. It is an emotionally draining affair that will certainly take a toll on you. But for the fearless few who venture forth, an utterly engaging film awaits.
Panic in the Streets (1950)
Directed by Elia Kazan.
Starring Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Paul Douglas, and Barbara Bel Geddes.
A year before directing his multi-award-winning opus, On the Waterfront, legendary auteur Elia Kazan was involved with the production of an oft overlooked gem called, Panic in the Streets. Set in New Orleans, the story follows the relentless efforts a handful of public officials must make to prevent an epidemic of Pneumonic plague. Panic in the Streets is undoubtedly one of the earliest films to explore the subject of disease outbreaks and their consequences. One of the most striking aspects of the film is its exquisite cinematography, with every shot positively dripping with mood and melodrama. Although the science aspect of it somewhat downplayed, with greater prominence given to the electrifying action and high-drama, the neo-noir elements of the film makes for a unique experience unlike any other.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Starring Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeline Stowe, and Christopher Plummer.
12 Monkeys marked a significant departure for Terry Gilliam, who at that point was more well known for his more hallucinatory, surreal efforts. But his decision to go for a more grounded, grittier aesthetic for 12 Monkeys, worked strongly in his favor. Inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 short-film La Jetée, Gilliam embarked on creating a feature-length version of it with screenwriter’s David and Janet Peoples, and their final product makes for one of the most fiercely original sci-fi films to come out from the ‘90s. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where much of humanity’s been wiped out by a deadly virus, the story follows the journey of an incarcerated felon, as he travels back in time to prevent said cataclysmic event from happening. Garnering critical and commercial acclaim on its release, 12 Monkeys still remains one of the quintessential films in the disease-outbreak subgenre which explores the devastating effect an epidemic’s aftermath can have on humanity and civilization, through the passage of time.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Directed by Robert Wise.
Starring Arthur Hill, James Olsen, Kate Reid, and David Wayne.
The Andromeda Strain is based on Michael Crichton’s seminal novel of the same name which popularized the ‘techno-thriller’ hybrid genre. Directed by veteran filmmaker Robert Wise who was responsible for such films as West Side Story, The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still, the film’s narrative follows the journey of a group of scientists, as they attempt to contain a deadly virus of extraterrestrial origin. The influence this film had on subsequent films and TV series of the same vein, cannot be overstated, with everything from The Walking Dead and the Resident Evil series referencing it in more ways than one. The concept of biological warfare was a relatively new field of interest in the 70’s and exploring the ramifications of such a concept was truly novel indeed. Featuring a trippy psychedelic score, dazzling Kubrick-esque visuals and engaging performances from the leads, this game changing retro-flick is truly an underrated gem that’s worth looking up.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Rene Russo.
In a lot of ways Outbreak can be considered the very antithesis of Soderbergh’s Contagion. Although it’s based on Richard Preston’s non-fiction best-seller The Hot Zone – which details the origins of viral hemorrhagic fevers of Central Africa- the adaptation of the source material is predictable at best; eschewing real-world science and replacing it with fictional drama. It’s a cheesy movie filled with all the stereotypes, clichés and scientific inaccuracies you’d expect from a ‘90s disaster flick, but Petersen’s assured direction coupled with a solid ensemble performance, elevates the film; transforming it into a fine edge-of-the-seat thriller that is bound to hold your attention throughout. Outbreak is ‘the’ prototypical Hollywood medical-disaster film and is quite possibly the reason why most millennials suffer from Pithecophobia.
The Crazies (2010)
Directed by Breck Eisner,
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Danielle Panabaker, and Joe Anderson.
The plot centers around a mundane middle-of-nowhere township whose population is suddenly stricken with a rage virus unwittingly unleashed upon them by a crashed military cargo plane. This modern-day retooling of George A. Romero’s 1973 original is everything that most remakes these days aren’t. Smart, tense and replete with solid acting, exciting action set pieces and an engaging story, this suspenseful gore-thriller will certainly satiate the cravings of horror-film aficionados as well as gore hounds looking for their fix. Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell though are the real stand outs here, embodying the roller-coaster plethora of emotions a couple caught in the middle of extraordinary circumstances would. All in all, The Crazies is a first-rate horror-thriller that will leave you wanting for more. Go watch it.
The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
Directed by George P. Cosmatos.
Starring Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and Martin Sheen, and O.J Simpson.
A terrorist on the run boards a continental train, blissfully unaware of the deadly pathogen dwelling within. And that’s pretty much the plot really. The 70’s offered up its own fair share of disaster films ranging from the likes of The Poseidon Adventure to The Towering Inferno. And it was in this period in time that The Cassandra Crossing was produced, with a star-studded cast headlining it. There’s a lot to nitpick about in this flick, but if you are willing to overlook them and embrace it for what it is…as pure unadulterated popcorn entertainment, then by God, you are in for one hell of a thrill ride. It’s cliched and predictable, yes, but if you are looking for a good time, give this one a looksee for some 70’s style cheese.
Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza.
Starring Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, and Jorge-Yamam Serrano.
This found-footage horror film made waves on its release, and rightly so. Its distinct visual style immerses and almost smothers the viewer with its claustrophobia inducing setting and overwhelming sense of dread, that permeates through it from start to finish. It is a hellish ride from start to finish, as we follow a news reporter and a group of firefighters as they investigate, what turns out to be, a not-so-routine distress call. Even though a decade has elapsed since its debut, [REC] still has the capacity to leave you shaken and disturbed, down to your very bones. Seek this out if you are strong of heart and spirit but avoid it like the plague, if you aren’t.
Hasitha Fernando – Follow me on Twitter DoctorCinephile