Ah, comparison. "Comparison is the thief of joy", according to Theodore Roosevelt. In this case, comparison is the "bringer of hope". You see, things may be bad in the world right now. Heck, all we have left is social media and that's enough to drive most sane people over the edge. But Hollywood? Hollywood have this way of making things so unbelievable - so downright madcap - that popcorn flicks can actually have a beneficial effect on mental health. Not that all of the movies in this list are popcorn flicks, but - dammit - allow me the description so my point makes sense. To be fair, I doubt many people were 'chowing down' on the snacks during Contagion, which we will get into below. Or, indeed, Outbreak, which joins Event Horizon and The Black Hole in that highly personal movie list of mine: The Nightmare Instigators. You know the one - that list we all have of movies we saw at just the right stage of formative development to be forever scarred. Anyway, here's the theory behind this article: even now, it could be worse. And, in the movies below, it is worse. Lots of movie lists are encouraging folk to 'feel good' and stick their head in the sand. You know, just ignore absolutely everything. I'm not sure about you but when I see a load of people cavorting around the place having a great time, not on lockdown, socialising and breathing fresh air and enjoying the sun it just reminds me of what I'm missing. So maybe it would be better to try things the other way around? What'll make lockdown seem tame? Liveable? Downright blissful? Lets get to the list.
Let's start with Outbreak (1995). Helpfully described by Wikipedia as a 'medical disaster film', this chilling production stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, K-Kevin S-Spacey (better get the lawyers in, we've mentioned him - Ed.), Donald Sutherland... basically an all star cast. And, you know, it's very much an ensemble piece. The basic thrust of the film is that a virus called Motaba - essentially an analogue for Ebola - has been hovering around the edges of 'being a threat' for a while. When the virus is accidentally loosed via a lab mishap, it mutates into an airborne strain as virulent as the flu (familiar?) but - because it's like Ebola - it's about a billion, trillion times worse than Covid-19. Think: bleeding from every orifice. Liquefying organs. Horrendous stuff. The US military wants to keep the virus a secret until they can adapt it into some kind of biological weapon, and all sorts of horrific events take place as a result. I was nine or ten years old when I somehow managed to see this film - probably on television when I shouldn't have been up - and it has, forever, left an impression of terror on me. Now, however, the film is a reminder that - as bad as things seem right now, we could have ended up with a disease like Motaba or Ebola - and we'd be praying for the end to come rather than sitting around bored on Twitter.
I AM LEGEND (2007)
Jumping way forward in time to 2007, let's have a look at the Will Smith infused action flick I Am Legend. The third adaption of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend (1954) after The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971), the 2007 version dumps a lot of the thoughtful writing and character studying ways of past adaptions in favour of expository flashbacks and lots of screaming, running and explosions. The virus, this time, is a sadly (and horrifically) mutated version of a cancer cure that ravages everyone everywhere. While the movie itself isn't as good as the earlier two adaptions (as far as I'm concerned, anyway) it's a decent slice of entertainment to kill an idle evening. Which all evenings are, unless you're forced to go to B&Q despite lockdown because the house simply must be decorated. In any case we follow virologist Lt. Col. Robert Neville (Will Smith) who is seemingly the last man standing as he tries to survive and figure out what's going on. The original ending was panned, so it may be an idea to seek out the directors cut of the movie which has a much more satisfying conclusion. Criticism and appraisal aside, the virus in this film is - once again - infinitely worse than Covid-19. So, stick it on and be thankful you're you, and not Robert Neville.
If this movie came out now it would be called 'Lockdown'. Quarantine is a found footage movie, quite the thing in 2008. Remember that? Cloverfield, etc? I went to see that nine or ten times in the pictures, and not just because it was the only place you could see the Star Trek 2009 teaser. We follow reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris) as they head on down to an apartment block to investigate an 'incident'. They've been tasked with following a bunch of firefighters on their night shift, and this is just another emergency call-out - apparently. Because, when they arrive, an elderly woman is absolutely going completely mad and attacking everyone - police, firefighters, you name it. Eventually the CDC turn up and quarantine the building - christening the movie with its name. The absolute carnage of the situation inside the building reaches a fever pitch that makes every second of our lockdown boredom seem like comfortable bliss. Yet another 'be thankful' flick, this, but it's not exactly Citizen Kane. Don't go in expecting much more than a feel-good comparison and a way to pass a wee bit of time.
Don't let the pedestrian sounding name fool you - there's horror to be had here. Chris Pine is the main bankable star in Carriers and, really, the critics tended to agree that while the film was a bit 'gloomy', it could have done with a wider release after being stuck in development hell for a while. As Rob Nelson of Variety noted, the film had been in 'de facto theatrical quarantine'. So, what's the story here by the way? Well, this time - similarly to I Am Legend - the virus has already peaked. The curve has been flattened - into oblivion, though - because most people have caught the thing and are dead or dying. Brian (Chris Pine) has a bunch of folk following him around and obeying a set of rules he's put in place to keep them safe. Unfortunately, as so often happens in these situations, the gang find themselves on an ever worsening, ever more painful path to complete destruction. Well, almost complete destruction - but you'll have to watch the movie to find out what I mean. There are a number of tired tropes in this flick, including the 'surviving military mob who want to steal all the women and repopulate the earth via brutal thuggery' but other than that, it's not too bad. It's just... a bit depressing really, but at least it'll make you count your blessings once you've finished with it.
THE CRAZIES (2010)
I remember watching The Crazies in Norwich with my best friend and my girlfriend-of-the-era, who had just (very kindly) bought me a new Apple laptop. We huddled around it in the darkness of my room, occasionally wondering out loud whether the film was a comedy or not. Because - really - it did feel quite funny at certain points. The movie has an interesting history and pedigree - it's a remake of 1971's The Crazies, which was written and directed by Zombie Commander in Chief himself George A. Romero. Romero returned to serve as executive producer on the remake which - it seems to me - might have been the source of the subtle levity detectable throughout the film. After all, the Living Dead series (for which Romero is most famous for) often had a wry sense of humour about it (in amongst the gut wrenching gore, of course). We follow David, Sheriff of Pierce County (Timothy Olyphant) as he tries to figure out - and then survive - the (cough) crazy events taking place in his town. The plot itself really is quite derivative - while the film performed reasonably well and wasn't panned by the critics, it's certainly not the kind of movie to reshape your idea of cinema. Look out for moments that you might miss - would you stick your wounded hand into a pile of Crazies infested blood, for instance? Or is it just me that's super cautious about catching a disease?
Ah yes, the most depressing film of all time. Honestly, I walked out of the cinema feeling like I had a rain cloud hovering over me. But we'll get to that in a minute. This film has a stellar cast: (deep breath) Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishborne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bryan Cranston - among others. Damon performs brilliantly as everyman Mitch Emhoff, who has a very bad day: first of all his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) suddenly dies from an unknown disease upon her return from a business trip to China. Then he finds out that - well, I won't say. In fact, I can't really say anything else because I'll spoil it. What I will say is Contagion might be the closest cinematic experience to what we're going through at the moment - which is why it's so damned depressing. Yes, I promised I'd make you feel better with this list, but it wouldn't be fair to everyone involved with Contagion to pretend it didn't exist. Just for your feelings' sake. Y'know? The film was generally well received by critics and did - well, fine - with ticket sales. Didn't blow the world apart but didn't sink either. Definitely worth a watch, but don't go into this one thinking you're in for a mindless popcorn munch-fest - you'll need your thinking cap on.
Time for a bit of international cinema! South Korea has pumped out a few zingers in recent years, not least Train to Busan (2016) - the sequel to which seems caught up in Covid madness. Anyway Flu deals quite interestingly with current day issues by starting off with a couple of smugglers who find some illegal immigrants who've died in a shipping container of... an unknown illness. An unknown illness that's soon to loose all hell upon South Korea. Very much an ensemble piece, Flu follows rather a similar path to Contagion by very much doing its 'thing' with a straight face. We get a lot of insight into what people might experience if society was edging perilously close to collapse - a situation that's a touch more severe than what we're living through right now - touch wood that it doesn't get worse. What's fascinating about this film is seeing the government response from a non-Western perspective - all too often we see things through the same lens every time, so a chance to look at a pandemic/epidemic situation from a South Korean perspective is welcome. Well worth the watch and - yes - shit hits the fan harder and faster than it has here in the real world, so it's good for that too.
WORLD WAR Z (2013)
Famously (to people from the West of Scotland like myself) the opening scenes of this film were shot in Glasgow. In actual fact the area that was trashed was George Square, where I used to eat my lunch when I was at university. There's nothing more surreal than watching the very bench you sat on, day after day eating Greggs, on the screen behind Brad Pitt and a crowd of zombies. Boring anecdotes aside, this movie was a bit of a disappointment for me. A huge fan of Max Brooks' book of the same name, I was expecting World War Z to be something a bit closer to the written work in tone. What we got instead was rather a generic action/horror movie with a few good touches and nods to the source material. There's this idea that 'people want this' and 'people want that' and 'but my vision' - can it, will ya? People bought the book in droves - they wanted that! Sure, a book will never translate directly to the screen, I get that, but you don't just slap the name onto what is, essentially, a completely different story. Still, for what it is, it's not bad. I was disappointed but still able to enjoy it for what it was. Basically, if I imagine it's NOT the adaption of Max Brooks' novel, I can mostly consume it as just another 'explodey' zombie movie. Although there's an excellently gruesome bit with a burnt zombie corpse that tickles the edges of the 'paranormal', so I'll give it that.
It's 'necroambulism', this time - quite a nifty name for a zombie plague. Literally 'dead walking'. So the USA is dealing with the aftermath of this nightmare and we get to see good old Arnie playing quite a different role - a heartbroken father. Kudos must also go to Abigail Breslin who does an incredible turn as the eponymous Maggie. This film will get you in the feels. Sure it wasn't a massive critical success, and certainly not a runaway money-maker but - well, there's just something about it. There's a reality to what's going on - as in, how would you feel if someone you loved was slowly turning into a zombie through no fault of their own? Would you really hate all the zombies out there who are - essentially - just unlucky people who got sick and are undoubtedly suffering themselves? I mean it can't be pleasant can it? Covered in wounds, unable to heal. So for that reason the movie makes the list: you're going to be glad that - whatever you go through now - you're never going to have to chain up your relatives for fear they're going to nip down in the middle of the night and start munching on you. Although, if we're to be open to all potential situations, you might already be worrying about that anyway. Cannibals do exist, I suppose, and lockdown is going to reduce the hunting grounds quite a bit.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)
Pleasingly we have saved one of the best films until last, and not on purpose since I've written the list chronologically. The Girl with All the Gifts is a fantastic movie. With a truly storied cast (including Glenn Close as a perfectly cold hearted and yet logical woman of science and the wonderful Sennia Nanua as 'the girl' of the title) , this movie really takes you on a journey. Gemma Arterton puts in a great performance and, as ever, Paddy Considine shines. The movie was produced in tandem with the book of the same name, unusually, which I think might have led to the peculiar quality (very much a compliment) that the film has. I'm loathe to say too much about the film for fear of spoiling it but we really do get taken along what feels like a very visually and thematically rich (I'll use the word again) journey to a conclusion that is - honestly - rather poignant. There are a lot of grey areas explored throughout the narrative - what is permissible in the name of survival? Should the human race - as it is - survive? Would the world be better off without us? All questions we ask ourselves - especially when we realise that the environment has improved due to lockdown. We've been shut away and the world recovers. Now isn't that simultaneously heartening and depressing?
Well, I hope you enjoyed the list and found it in some way informative. These are all at least worth a watch, and some of the movies listed are downright unmissable. The great majority of them will leave you feeling thankful that things aren't worse right now with Covid-19. Always remember this: it could be worse. It doesn't - on the face of it - sound like positive thinking but really, it is - because when you think about it honestly, you're probably not the worst off person in the world right now. It's always a good idea to seek perspective whether through the words of a friend, the pages of a book or - indeed - the frames of a film. Take care.