By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 1, 2020)
Eerily deserted street in Wuhan, China this week (via Reuters)
This city is being closed off in a way that China has never done before — or even any other major modern city, really, hasn’t done it in recent times. [The Chinese government] quickly expanded it to not just Wuhan, but to other cities, so that there were tens of millions of people who were essentially forced to stay at home and not allowed to go out. They’ve just put in place the biggest lockdown that we’ve ever seen and what experts are saying is the biggest experiment in public health that they’ve ever seen.
That may read like a film treatment for an apocalyptic thriller, but it’s from a January 30th NPR broadcast of the New York Times-produced program The Daily. The comment was made by New York Times overseas reporter Javier Hernandez, who was being interviewed by the show’s host, Michael Barbaro. Hernandez was giving a chilling account as to what has been happening on the ground in China in the wake of the outbreak of Coronavirus. Barbaro followed Hernandez’s comment with this observation:
It’s hard to imagine most any other country being able to mount that kind of a response. I mean, I’m just trying to fathom an American city somehow being locked down.
[Hernandez] So this is what it looks like when China’s authoritarian system is in full force. There’s no choice for people to leave. Many people are stuck there. They are going to hospitals that are overcrowded, but they can’t get the health care they need. Doctors are complaining about a lack of medical supplies and critical items like masks and goggles. And you get the sense that people are kind of stuck with what they have, and that’s the bargain they’ve made by living in this system. They have no choice but to follow the government’s orders. They can’t push back. They can’t swim against the current here. Everyone’s essentially forced to comply with this mass lockdown. […]
China has built this system, this ruthless system in which if you are an official in the Communist Party, you are expected to be almost perfect. If anything goes bad, you are the one who is going to take responsibility. You are the one who is going to fall. And this has created an incentive system where local officials fear saying anything about bad news. […]
[Barbaro] So by the time something like, say, a medical crisis gets really big, it may be too late for the local officials who have been trying to contain it themselves and keep it from Beijing.
[Hernandez] Exactly. These kinds of dynamics played a huge role in the scale of the SARS outbreak. It was clear in this case that local officials knew exactly what was going on. They knew that people were dying of this illness. But for months and months, they didn’t want to report it up the chain. Instead, they tried to cover it up. They tried to see if they could perhaps deal with it secretly, and maybe nobody would ever find out about it. They hoped that Beijing would know about it. But eventually it broke. […]
[Barbaro] So that [culture of covering up] had trickled down all the way to the frontline health care workers, who are supposed to be treating this and sounding the alarm.
[Hernandez] Right. They’re fearful of being seen as responsible for this crisis. They don’t want to stand out. And when you think about where this virus might be headed next — to other provinces, to other cities — you have to wonder if these same dynamics would be playing out again. If people will stay silent, if they will not report official cases, because they fear for their jobs and they fear for their livelihoods. […]
And so when you look at the culture, you wonder whether China can actually contain these viruses, whether we will continue to live in a world where the internal politics of the party are going to put lives around the world in danger.
Well, that’s not very…reassuring.
Of course, China is not the source of every virus outbreak. And now that the coronavirus has officially been declared a “global health emergency” by the World Health Organization, finger-pointing should be the last thing on the agenda. Health officials worldwide have mobilized, necessary precautions are being taken wherever practical, and scientific research has begun in earnest regarding the possible development of a vaccine.
In the meantime, wash your hands, eat your Wheaties, and then wash your hands again. Oh…and did you hear that the Doomsday Clock is now at 100 seconds to midnight? With those cheery thoughts in mind, here’s a few “viral” films you might want to, erm…catch:
The Andromeda Strain– What’s the scariest monster of 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 2020…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 that simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.
Contagion– Steven Soderbergh takes the network narrative formula that propelled his film Traffic and applies it to 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 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 shot 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 film 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 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 Will Smith 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 scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a ass-kicking babe in the Pam Grier mold.
Panic in the Streets– While this is 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- a 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 carrying the Pneumonic Plague. This puts him at loggerheads with the police, who aren’t crazy about the deadline pressure. The deadly virus 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 one of his earliest roles, and Jack Palance (this was his big-screen 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 an indeterminate amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit, so it isn’t necessarily 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 (naturally) begin to fall in love (insert metaphor here; or as the old Burt Bacharach and Hal David song goes – “…you get enough germs to catch pneumonia.”).
What makes Mackenzie’s film unique in an overcrowded genre is that while there’s still a sense of urgency to find a “cure”, the question becomes not “can humanity be saved in time?” …but rather “can humanity 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 of the film gives you a sense of what it must have been like living with the horror and heartbreak of the Plague in that era.
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 humanity. 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 a delusional schizophrenic living in the year 1996? I’m not telling.
28 Days Later– Director Danny Boyle’s speed freak-in-a-telephone booth style of film making has rarely been so perfectly matched with subject matter than it is in this unsettling 2002 shocker.
In a memorable opening sequence reminiscent of The Omega Man, a man (Cillian Murphy) wanders alone through the streets of a deserted metropolis (London). He finds out soon enough that he is in reality not “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.