Watching Pandemics—in Film

(Additional updates on January 31, 2021)

One of the things we’re doing to pass the time is winding down the day with a “good” pandemic flick. So far, we’re only gotten through two. I’ll update this post as we get through more. Spoiler alert: I’ll be careful not to give too much away, but can’t guarantee a no-spoiler review.

First up was The Andromeda Strain (1971, IMDB score: 7.2). Two films and one miniseries have been based on this early novel by Michael Crichton, and this is generally considered the best of them. If nothing else, it’s the one that adheres closest to the book.

In today’s every-film-is-a-blockbuster world, one tends to forget that, due to technical, economic, and other constraints, films were often extremely poorly paced, chaotic, and somewhat boring. There’s almost no background score for the film, and what’s there is entirely forgettable. Though the sterile technique is relatively good in this, it’s far from perfect; science is only so-so. Performances are decent, and one item of note is that this is probably the last time in film that a supermodel prototype was not used for a female scientist. It also reminded us that people used to smoke.

Outbreak (1995, IMDB score: 6.6) Horrible sterile technique, mostly poor science (although some good basic virology) and an entire military branch that refuses to obey orders. Excellent makeup for disease effects. (Bonus: Ebola-type viruses cause one’s hair to lose its curl as the disease progresses. Who knew?) Dustin Hoffman and cast provide credible performances while behaving incredibly, although the basic scenario is plausible. There’s a conspiracy-driven sub plot that doesn’t quite fit. Hoffman seems schizoid when it comes to protecting the world from an Ebola-type outbreak. He’s determined to cure it, but becomes positively reckless in his investigation.

We then tackled The Hot Zone, a National Geographic miniseries based on Richard Preston’s excellent account of the same name. (2019, IMDB score: 7.3). This was an only-moderately dramatized version of real events, with which I was familiar from reading Preston’s book. This scored extremely well on the science, and captures the horror of viral hemorrhagic fevers. The world can be very grateful that this strain only affected monkeys.

(Updated on January 31, 2021.) It took us a while, but we finally returned to another pandemic film: Contagion (2011, IMDB score: 6.7). This film deals with a global pandemic of a mutated zoonotic virus with a rapid, 25% mortality rate and an R0 of 4, a true “doomsday scenario.” What’s impressive is how much of the societal effects this film gets right, as we now have a case study of a pandemic with a mostly low but widely varied mortality rate (highly affected by age) and an R0 that ranges from 1.4 to 3.9 (according to Medscape). There are food shortages and hoarding, social media propagators of disinformation, and a CDC sometimes hamstrung by politics. The scenes of empty stores, shopping malls, and gyms were particularly poignant. The precautions taken by scientists are sound, and feel very real, and the science is pretty good, if slightly vague, until the end, where a single act becomes a deus ex machina. Our own experiences have made this film seem far more authentic than we would have realized; I don’t think we would have appreciated it as much in 2011.

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