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  • Parviz Jahed

Coronavirus And The Reflection Of Disaster Movies

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

By: Parviz Jahed

When a disease like coronavirus, SARS, Ebola, the plague, or cholera causes a pandemic we cannot help but think of apocalyptic novels or films since we tend to see similarities between the real world and those fictional situations. For example, if someone had read José Saramago’s Blindness, Camus’s The Plague, or H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds or had seen their adaptations for big screen in the past, they would find a safe distance between the characters in these stories and themselves. However, this distance has now been shortened and the audience can witness disasters occurring in front of their own eyes that they had previously only encountered in novels and films with post-apocalyptic theme and atmosphere.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films, also known as disaster movies or doomsday movies, belong to a diverse genre. These films are often dystopian in nature, as opposed to utopian films. If utopian films look for a paradise, utopia, or lost object, in dystopian films, there is no longer any utopia. Instead, everything has turned into ruins and human beings are simply struggling to survive in man-made or natural disasters.

In Greek, the word apocalypse means “unveiling” or “unfolding” and in religious texts it refers to the revelation or unveiling of a hidden truth. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ made the greatest revelation about God because he is said to have unveiled Him to the human beings. The Bible, Torah, and Quran all promise the apocalypse to the followers of their respective religions. In the Bible, Armageddon is the day of the resurrection of Christ and the day of God’s final wrath. The Book of Revelation in the Bible vividly describes this event:

And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell […] And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe (The Book of Revelation 16:17-21).

In the Quran, the apocalypse is referred to as the “momentous day” or the great day upon which the disbelievers are shocked: “So woe to those who disbelieve” (Surah Maryam, verse 37). In the Quran, unnatural phenomena like sun rising from the west, smoke appearing in the sky, sounds that can be heard in Tyre, breaks in the sky, massive earthquakes, the trembling of the earth and the mountains, the rising of the seas, and darkness being upon the sun, the moon, and the stars are all described as the signs of the apocalypse.

Apocalyptic literature and cinema are, in fact, heavily influenced by religious scriptures and they are in one way or another a premonition of the fate of the world and its inhabitants. Apocalyptic films can be put into three different categories based upon the types of disasters that they depict:

1. Natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and outbreaks of deadly diseases

2. Invasions by creatures from outer space

3. World wars and nuclear explosions and their consequences.

Disaster movies form a genre that is almost as old as cinema itself with roots tracing back to the silent film era with examples such as Fire! (1901) and Noah’s Ark (1928). The genre became popular once again after World War II with the age of nuclear bombs and the start of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Such films included notable examples such as The War of the Worlds (1953, based on the H.G. Wells novel), Godzilla(1954), and Godzilla: King of the Monsters!(2019). They usually featured a natural or supernatural disaster which the government and military would try to control in order to stop the death of human beings and the destruction of cities. There is often a character in the government or the army, or a physician, who gets involved in the story and becomes the hero in middle of the disaster, saving himself and his family or even the entire world. These films typically feature an unusually nightmarish atmosphere with a futuristic and sometimes surreal quality while also featuring elements of the contemporary world.

In Hollywood disaster movies, the source of the crisis is almost always found to be from outside the United States. This tendency was especially popular during the Cold War when communists or immigrants from Eastern Europe were introduced as the reason for the outbreak of viruses. Now that communism has faded away and the enemies of the United States have changed, those making movies about disease outbreaks have shifted their attention to Muslim terrorists or Chinese people. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an example of the former approach, with General Jack D Ripper ("Jack the Ripper" was the name given to an uncaught, unidentified murderer of London whores) saying that Russians have polluted the water in the United States and that anyone who drinks it will become a communist. Dr. Strangelove is a symbolic film, an allegorical story of the spread of an infection during the Cold War and the ideological hostility between the East and the West. Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) is one of the most outstanding classic film noirs of the 1950s. It was made in the era of the Cold War and McCarthyism with the fear of “the other” and the fear of communism in American society being represented by a deadly virus which enters the country through an illegal immigrant and infects the whole population. The hero of the story, Dr. Reed (played by Richard Widmark), is an officer for the U.S. Public Health Service who must find a way to respond to a plague epidemic which has caused panic in the city of New Orleans. Kazan masterfully uses the visual elements of film noirs, including expressionist lighting, to create a suspenseful atmosphere and to show the dark underground world of criminals.

Advancements in digital technology and the rise of CGI techniques during the 1990s helped the genre of apocalyptic movies to become more prominent once again with notable examples including Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Mad Max (1979), Children of Men (2006), The Road (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), 2012, I Am Legend (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), Blindness (2008), and Contagion (2011). The common element among these films is that they all scare us, with the source of this horror sometimes being realistic like in Dr. Strangelove, Contagion, or 28 Days Later or else being allegorical, fantastic, and futuristic like in Blindness, Twelve Monkeys, or The Book of Eli. This is why Dahlia Schweitzer claims in her book Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World that human beings lead an unprecedentedly secure life despite all the wars and political turmoil depicted in the media. She believes that the massive disasters shown by these apocalyptic movies will never happen in the real world. Even still, those modern disaster movies which have a more realistic and scientific aspect and are made based on real events, like Contagion, can be great models for people as well as governments and organizations such as the World Health Organization to prepare for disasters so they can manage and overcome future crises.

In his analysis of the coronavirus outbreak, Slavoj Žižek claims that we are obsessed with things like global crises, the thought that planet Earth is falling apart, COVID-19, and the idea of objects colliding with Earth. According to Žižek, the fact that we accept the end of the world but we do not accept a change in the system towards a communist society is paradoxical. As he postulates, the spread of the coronavirus pandemic “triggers vast epidemics of ideological viruses which were laying dormant in our societies: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism.” A few dystopian films have been made based on such theories as they have incorporated political themes and are extremely pessimistic and bleak. Examples include Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451(1966), Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness (2008), and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011).

Unlike other films in the genre, Contagion is not trying to create fear but also examines several different topics in the form of a family drama while showing how fast the virus spreads in different cities around the world as well as how scientists work to fight it off, and how governments and the media try to hide the truth from the public. Contagion is a prophetic film and is extremely similar to the current situation in the world with the coronavirus outbreak. Even the type of virus and the theory about how it was spread in the film are shockingly similar to what real-world scientists say about the spread of the coronavirus from an animal host to human beings. In the film, the virus is spread from a bat to a pig, from a pig to a restaurant in Hong Kong, and then a woman named Beth (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), who contracts the disease through having contact with the chef at the restaurant and brings the virus with her to the United States. A journalist played by Jude Law is convinced that the virus was made by the American government for two reasons. First, it was to be used against countries that are considered enemies. Second, it was to generate profit through the response to the crisis, such as developing treatments and a vaccine.

The speed at which the virus in Contagion spreads throughout the United States, the large number of patients and the high death toll all make the film quite similar to the coronavirus pandemic. Quarantined cities, food shortages, and people rushing to the supermarkets and pharmacies to loot whatever they can find are similar to the current situation in the real world, although the scale of the disaster in the film is broader and far more terrifying than what can be seen in the real world today. Contagion shows that, despite advancements in science, technology, and knowledge, human beings are still vulnerable, fragile, and desperate. While depicting the human drive for self-preservation, the film takes a humanistic approach to the disaster as it does not lie to the audience, does not provide shallow thrills, and stays true to the most important thing, which is people’s health.

Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, which was inspired by the avant-garde short film La Jetée by Chris Marker, also warns against the annihilation of human beings by deadly viruses. The film shows how a terrorist group called the Twelve Monkeys releases a virus, thus killing 5 billion people and leaving only one percent of the human population on Earth alive as they are forced to live underground. The narrative of the film is more complex as it shifts from the future to the past and vice versa, but it is just as prophetic as Contagion. As one female character in the film emphasizes, “We are the next endangered species.”

Blindness, directed by Fernando Meirelles, was adapted from the post-apocalyptic novel by José Saramago. The film depicts the moral decline of human beings during a disaster when the outbreak of a virus suddenly turns the population of a city blind. The government declares an emergency and the patients are placed in quarantine in a center which resembles a prison. In quarantine, people gradually lose their human traits and fight with one another like animals. At the beginning, everybody is equal and their shared pain brings them closer but a few of them gradually seek power and start to use force against others, rape them, and use them for different purposes. There is a woman among them who was not affected by the virus and did not lose her eyesight but she sacrifices herself and pretends that she is also blind in order to go into the quarantine zone and stay with her husband, who has lost his eyesight. The important theme of the film, apart from self-sacrifice, is that fear spreads the blindness and that one has to be brave and must endure in order to overcome the blindness.

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is also a post-apocalyptic film in which a deadly virus is spread from animals to human beings. Similar to the situation in Blindness, we see London and other cities in the United Kingdom destroyed with most people turned into bloodthirsty zombies while only a few people have been left uninfected and fighting for survival. Like in Blindness, the military still exists and runs certain parts of the country. However, instead of helping the survivors, they only think about using or raping them. When the protagonist of the film tells the army officer that he killed a boy who had the virus, the officer replies that he had to do it or else the boy would have killed him. The film shows the empty, haunted streets of London, with tourist attractions such as Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, which were once packed with people, being deserted and full of garbage; it is a terrifying sight. One of the characters in the film says ironically “You’d never think it... needing rain so badly. Not in f***ing England!” Even still, the film is more hopeful about the future compared to other films in the genre, although its ending is too optimistic and becomes unbelievable. A character says “How could infection cross the oceans? How could it cross the mountains and the rivers? They already stopped it! What would you do with a diseased little island? They quarantined us.” This realization makes the protagonists of the film hopeful about the future.

Although most of the crises depicted in futuristic disaster movies have more or less happened in some form in the real world, there is still a great difference between real life and what is depicted in the movies because with the coronavirus people can still be in self-quarantine, where they can read novels like The Plague or Blindness in peace, or can be entertained by watching a disaster movie and not think about the consequences of the disaster unfolding in front of their eyes.

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