By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 19, 2013)
According to a disconcerting report that aired on ABC earlier this week, in spite of the fact that the U.S. is in the midst of a particularly virulent flu season, an estimated 69 million Americans remain unmoved by strident advisories from public health officials and medical professionals that everybody should get vaccinated ASAP.
Apparently the predominant excuse is a surprisingly common misconception that getting a shot will literally give you flu (it would be fun to find out what percentage of these refuseniks see flu shots as another form of government tyranny…you know, Obama’s secret collusion with the CDC to slip them a Mickey and seize their guns). Whatever the excuse, I have one question for these folks: Are you nuts? Have you ever had the flu? It’s not exactly a romp in the fields. Anyway, I was vaccinated in October, and so far, so good.
With that in mind, here’s some of Hollywood’s catchiest titles; my “Top 10 Viral Videos” (the theory being, if I can’t convince you to practice preventive medicine, maybe watching one of these flicks will?) As per usual, in alphabetical order…
The Andromeda Strain– What’s the scariest monster of them all? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by screenwriter Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. The team is essentially restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this one a nail-biter from start to finish.
Black Death– It is a time of pestilence, monarchs, serfs, and sociopolitical turmoil, ruled by widespread ignorance and superstition. No, I’m not referring to America in 2013…but 1348, when the first wave of bubonic plague swept across Europe. That’s the cheery backdrop for this dark period piece from UK director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.
Eddie Redmayne stars as a young monk who, at the behest of his bishop, throws in with a “religious” knight (Sean Bean) and his dubious band of mercenaries on an a quest to investigate why all the residents of a particular village seem immune to the “black death” (the Church suspects “witchcraft”).
Screenwriter Dario Poloni blurs the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. Whether one places their faith and hope into an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, perhaps it is the most simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.
Contagion– Steven Soderbergh takesthe network narrative formula that propelled Traffic and applies it to similar effect in this cautionary vision of sociopolitical upheaval in the wake of a major killer pandemic. Patient Zero is an American (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning to the U.S. from a Hong Kong business trip, who at first appears to be only developing a slight cold as she kills time at an airport lounge.
However, Soderbergh’s camera begins to linger on seemingly inconsequential items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand, as she pays her tab. Ominous cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, who have all suddenly taken deathly ill, deliver a creeping sense of dread, which only warms you up for the harrowing, all-too plausible globe-spanning nightmare scenario that ensues.
By reining in his powerhouse cast, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that largely eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if clinical at times), resulting in a sobering and thought-provoking exercise.
The Killer That Stalked New York-Despite dated trappings, Earl McEvoy’s low-budget 1951 film noir (based on a NYC smallpox outbreak in 1947 thwarted by fast-acting city health officials and a cooperative public) still makes for a gripping disease thriller.
Patient Zero is a diamond smuggler (Evelyn Keyes) who has just returned from Cuba. Unbeknownst to her, there’s a Fed hot on her trail; unbeknownst to both of them (initially), she is also carrying the smallpox virus. With its pseudo-documentary approach and heavy use of location filming, the movie recalls The Naked City.
A montage depicting how city officials administer the “Big Scratch” to every New Yorker proves how some things will never change (when a health department worker offers a vaccination to one distrustful fellow, he says “Ain’t nobody stickin’ a joim in my arm!”).
The Omega Man-This 1971 Boris Sagal film was the second screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (the 1964 Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth was the first, book-ended by I Am Legend in 2007). While all three adaptations have their strengths and weaknesses, I have a soft spot for this one, with the ever-hammy Charlton Heston as a military scientist battling mutated albino plague victims in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the locale was switched to New York City in the 2007 version).
In the wake of a deadly pandemic attributed to biological warfare fallout from a Sino-Soviet war, Heston injects himself with an experimental vaccine that appears to work. However, the main threat to his health is not so much the virus, but the rabid lynch mob of pissed-off albino freaks who storm his heavily fortified apartment building every night, led by a messianic ex-TV news anchor (Anthony Zerbe, chewing the scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a bad ass mama in the Pam Grier mold.
Panic in the Streets– While this is yet another film noir mixing documentary-style police procedural with disease thriller tropes (released in August of 1950, it actually precedes The Killer That Stalked New York by 5 months), it does differ in a few significant ways. For one, the locale is New Orleans. This is also a much slicker production, with a prestige director at the helm (Elia Kazan, who made another New Orleans based story the following year-little film you may have heard of called A Streetcar Named Desire).
Noir icon Richard Widmark is the “good guy” in this one-a Navy doctor working for the health department, who has 48 hours to track down the killers of a murder victim who is carrying the Pneumonic Plague. This puts him at loggerheads with the police, who aren’t crazy about the deadline pressure. The deadly virus, of course, won’t wait, which gives the narrative its tension. This is one of Kazan’s most stylistically accomplished films, full of Wellesian tracking shots (and great cinematography by Joseph McDonald). Look for Zero Mostel in an early role (and Jack Palance in his debut).
Perfect Sense– David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama tackles that age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? This is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation period. The afflicted have a certain (if indeterminate) amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit, so it isn’t necessarily what one would consider as being a “death sentence”.
The outbreak brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to analyze data as cases escalate. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening wherein they both suffer the first warning sign: a sudden, inexplicable emotional breakdown. As they have both “taken leave” of their senses, they begin (naturally) to fall in love (plenty of room for metaphor in this narrative).
That’s what makes Mackenzie’s film unique in an overcrowded genre; while there’s still a sense of urgency to find a “cure”, the question is not “can the human race be saved?”- but rather “can the human race make lemonade out of this lemon it’s been handed?”
Restoration- Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his most underrated performances in Michael Hoffman’s lusty, richly textured and visually sumptuous recreation of 17th-Century England during the reign of Charles II. Downey plays a physician whose burgeoning medical career is put on hold after he “saves the life” of the King’s beloved spaniel. The grateful Charles invites him into his inner circle, encouraging the doctor to avail himself of the perks at his disposal.
Court politics eventually put the doc in the King’s disfavor, and his life takes twists and turns, ultimately bringing him back in London during the Great Plague, where he finds his mojo as a dedicated physician. The verisimilitude regarding the recreation of London during the era really gives the viewer a sense of what it must have been like living with the horror and heartbreak of the Plague.
Twelve Monkeys-Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.
Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of the human race. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).
I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he what the psychiatrist is telling him-a delusional schizophrenic actually living in 1996? There are many more surprises up Gilliam’s sleeve here.
28 Days Later-Director Danny Boyle’s speed freak-in-a-telephone booth style of film making has rarely been so perfectly matched up with subject matter than it is in this unsettling 2002 shocker.
In a memorable opening sequence reminiscent of The Omega Man (see above), a man (Cillian Murphy) wanders alone through the streets of a deserted metropolis (London). He finds out soon enough that he is actually far from “alone”, and that the folks he runs into are far from human (although they started that way).
The malady is a highly contagious “rage virus”; unleashed by rampaging lab monkeys that have been liberated by unsuspecting animal rights activists. Murphy bands together with others who have managed to avoid contact with the affected, and they head out of the city in desperate search of sanctuary.
Somehow, Boyle’s disparate mishmash of disease thriller, popcorn zombie chiller and “conspiracy a-go-go” coalesces. At once gross and engrossing, it is not for the squeamish.