6 movies about pandemics to watch (or avoid)

  • Movies
  • Wednesday, 18 Mar 2020

Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin in a CDC lab in 2011's thriller, 'Contagion'.

If people have to self-quarantine, they’ll probably spend a lot of time watching TV to make the hours pass. We thought you might like a list of movies about hideous germs and desperate races to find a cure.

We’ve excluded zombie movies, because zombies are ridiculous. Granted, zombie movies do a good job of depicting rapid infection and collapse, but anyone who’s had the flu knows the last thing you feel like doing is running around and biting people.

The Satan Bug (1965)

The bug: Extra-strength botulism.

The plot: Someone steals a biological weapon that could wipe out all life on Earth in a few months. This must be stopped.

Scary part: The premise.

The Omega Man (1971)

The bug: Something cooked up by the Commies makes you clutch your throat and fall over on the spot.

The plot: It’s almost a zombie movie, and when it was remade in 2000 as I Am Legend with Will Smith, it was a zombie movie. Based on a novel by Richard Matheson, it’s set in the aftermath of a biological weapon attack on the United States. Everyone died except for Charlton Heston, some hippies and a few mutated losers who form an anti-technology cult.

Because it was made in the early 1970s, it’s depressing. Spoiler alert: Heston gives his all to save the world, then dies in a fountain.

Scary part: Lots of creepy moments. The onset of the disease is brisk but harrowing. The empty world is eerie, the plague survivors implacable.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

The bug: A microscopic speck of silicon-based green goop that kills instantly by making all your blood clot.

The plot: Based on Michael Crichton’s first techno-thriller, it concerns a satellite that crashes in a tiny New Mexico town. Of course, the locals open it up, and minutes later everyone’s buzzard feed.

The team assembled to fight includes the calm, logical scientist; the young, handsome doctor angry at “the system:” the curmudgeon who’s too old for this, and the sarcastic, disillusioned but brilliant researcher with a dangerous secret. These all are cliches, of course – but they weren’t cliches in 1971. In fact, it almost plays like a documentary.

Scary part: Directed by Robert Wise (yes, the same guy who made The Sound Of Music), the entire movie thrums with dread and spiky, twitchy fear, in part thanks to the use of Gil Mille’s eerie electronic score. The discovery of the bug remains one of the great unnerving moments of sci-fi – you’re terrified not so much by the green Jell-O (the props were cliches, too), but what it does. The worst moment might be a test on the effect of the germ on a lab monkey. The viewer had no doubt that they’d just seen a creature die. Right there. On the screen, with pitiless clinical observation. No germ movie has ever felt as real as that moment.

(PS The monkey didn’t really die.)

Outbreak (1995)

The bug: It’s called Motaba, but it’s your basic Ebola.

The plot: “Viral hemorrhagic fever” was all the rage in the mid-1990s, thanks to a book called The Hot Zone, an account of Ebola that terrified readers in 1994. In this fictional version, some idiot smuggles an African monkey into the United States, producing an outbreak in a picturesque town whose population is drawn from L.L. Bean catalogues. Dr. Dustin Hoffman has to work with his ex-wife, Dr Rene Russo, to stop evil General Donald Sutherland from using the germ as a weapon.

It’s more of an action movie than a plague-thriller, although at the time it seemed impressively high-tech. Now you look at the super-secret labs and wonder why the beakers of Ebola have aluminum foil for stoppers, and why the security system at an infectious disease lab requires everyone to touch a fingerprint reader for access.

Scary part: It’s no fun to see Kevin Spacey bleed out of every orifice and convulse.

Flu (2013)

The bug: Take a guess.

The plot: It’s a South Korean movie about a lethal airborne virus in a large suburb within sneezing distance of Seoul. From the earnest upright emergency-response guy to the spunky gal scientist to the adorable child in peril, it’s almost as cliched as The Andromeda Strain.

Just as American pandemic movies usually end up blaming the government, so does this. And just like American movies, this one blames the Yanks, too.

Scary part: The mean soldiers are going to shoot the little girl who’s escaping the quarantine.

Contagion (2011)

The bug: The MEV-1, which could have been called the lickety-split death bug.

The plot: With many parallels to the coronavirus scare, this is the movie people are watching, its newfound popularity spread – how apt – by word-of-mouth. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it lacks the Hollywood polish of Outbreak, the melodrama of Flu and the Cold-War paranoia of The Omega Man. But it has shout-outs to Minneapolis — the infected guy on the bus is at Lake and Lyndale! – but the Minnesota Department of Health comes off as a bunch of suet-faced idiots who need things like “epidemics” and “germs” explained slowly, with pictures.

It’s slow-burning, disconnected, abrupt and full of dialogue that throws around medical jargon with no expectation that we’ll know what anyone is talking about. It sketches societal collapse with deft, brisk moments. In short, it just... keeps... getting... worse.

Scary part: They close down the Mondale Elementary School!

Cold Storage (?)

This movie, which is listed as being “in production” – a term that covers everything from “filming will start tomorrow” to “a producer is thinking about reading it” – is based on the book of the same name by David Koepp, best known as the screenwriter of Jurassic Park. It’s about a fabulously lethal fungus that makes people climb trees and explode. Where did it come from? A piece of the Skylab space station that fell into a small town in the desert.

Sounds a lot like Andromeda, eh? As the saying goes, everything old is flu again. – James Lileks/Star Tribune/Tribune News Service

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Contagion , Virus , Outbreak , Dustin Hoffman


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