There’s a pretty good chance that if you’re reading this, you’re at home with nowhere to be for an indeterminate length of time. And like everyone else, you’re wondering exactly how bad things might get over the next several days, weeks or months. Naturally, with your life on hold, you might be looking for things to watch online, and at the top of that list might be movies about deadly viruses, pandemics or just the annihilation of the human race. It makes sense. As a matter of fact, that more or less describes me, and I’m not typically one to worry about such things. But this is different.
So to either calm my nerves or freak myself out — I’m not sure which — I revisited two films from the past quarter-century that I hadn’t thought about in years: Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak, from 1995, and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, from 2011. Both can be described as suspense-thrillers about deadly viruses that threaten to ricochet around the planet killing millions, if not everyone, but only one feels even remotely close to the real situation we face today with the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
That movie is Contagion, which follows the path of a highly contagious virus from Hong Kong to Chicago to Minneapolis through its first human host, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow). Once the virus takes root in a given community, it spreads exponentially despite killing everyone it infects (not a very smart virus, if you think about it). This is one of the major differences between that fictional virus and COVID-19, which is a brilliant virus precisely because it doesn’t even present symptoms in some who catch it, allowing it to spread unnoticed, and whose fatality rate appears to be around 2 percent. Nevertheless, the virus in Contagion spreads much like COVID-19, through incidental human contact.
Like all things Soderbergh, Contagion is a directorial punch in the face. It’s tight, meticulously structured and through multiple storylines looks at the crisis as if through a prism. We see its immediate human impact, the CDC’s desperate response, the media’s fumbling attempts to keep up, and the nefarious, selfish depths to which individuals can resort when their lives are at risk. It won’t likely take your mind off the coronavirus — the parallels are, frankly, startling — but it might reassure you that things could be worse. The markets may be in turmoil and life as we know it has hit a cement wall, but we’re not all dying horrid, foaming-at-the-mouth deaths.
Comparatively speaking, Outbreak is about as plausible as Red Dawn, the 1984 cold war classic about Russians invading a small town in Colorado. Released 16 years earlier than Contagion, in 1995, Outbreak brings the differences between that mid-1990s and the early 2010s into sharp relief. A big Hollywood movie-movie starring Dustin Hoffman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Rene Russo and Donald Sutherland, the film tracks an equally lethal and contagious disease from Zaire to the U.S. via an infected monkey. Its outbreak is limited to just one town, in California, while the government, military and CDC fight to stop it. They wind up fighting each other in what turns out to be a war of competing agendas, with Hoffman’s character, a military doctor, uncovering a secret government plot to keep the virus secret after it first appeared nearly 30 years prior.
In 1995, we had yet to experience 9/11, the subsequent anthrax scare or the hysteria generated by mis- and disinformation that spreads online even faster than viruses themselves. Instead, the drama in Outbreak is carried by the tired tropes of good guys versus bad guys, the miraculous healing qualities of a good crisis and the invasion of a foreign entity on U.S. soil, not unlike in Red Dawn.
That the entity originates in Africa, its carrier is a monkey and the soil where it lands is a quaint, entirely white town on the California coast begs for parallels to HIV’s arrival to the U.S. in the 1970s. If intentional, and I’ll argue that it was, this only reinforces the idea that Outbreak was made during a time defined by fear no less than 2011 or, indeed, today. But the fear then was easier to locate, and the blame quicker to identify — as misguided and racist as that blame often was. This isn’t immaterial. When the president of the United States goes on national television to declare COVID-19 a “foreign virus,” he is falling back on precisely the kind of racist, xenophobic tropes that underpinned films like Outbreak.
To its credit, Contagion acknowledges the virus’s origin — a bat, which then infects a pig, which then infects Beth — but the film doesn’t dwell on the point of origin itself. No blame is assigned to Hong Kong, or even tacitly, to mainland China. Viral spread is just something that happens in a globally connected world, and the disease is no more “Chinese” than the bat is.
Given the president’s love of movies, and his resistance to scientific thought, perhaps he should watch Soderbergh’s film and leave Outbreak in the past. As for everyone else, watch whatever you like, just don’t mistake it for reality. And wash your hands.
Outbreak is streamable on Netflix; Contagion can be rented on Amazon Prime.