Fight the Pandemic With These Classic Virus Movies
Virology movies for your quarantine and stay-at-home pleasure
The girlfriend is a public health grad student/professional and bad horror movie fan. My tastes in movies run a bit more artistic. So last fall I introduced her to the classic Michael Crichton film The Andromeda Strain (1971) by legendary director Robert Wise, who also directed the incomparable West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) — two Academy Awards Best Picture winners, two perfect movies. (Wise also directed the awful Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) so no one’s perfect.)
The following 4 movies are perfect if you are a fan of pandemic-type apocalyptic virus movies.
The Andromeda Strain
The Andromeda Strain was the first novel published under Michael Crichton’s real name and set him on the path to become a best-selling author, world-renowned story-teller, and movie director in his own right. Crichton is perhaps best known for Jurassic Park at this point. I remember seeing The Andromeda Strain on television as a kid and being mesmerized by the slow-pacing, the abject terror of the scientists at the power of this virus, and the scientist so severely affected by the red flashing lights because of her epilepsy. Later, I was reminded of it by Alien, another fantastically slow-paced movie with a small cast and a horrifying extra-terrestrial monster.
The girlfriend enjoyed The Andromeda Strain and returned to watching her slasher and zombie flicks while I wrote, glad to have brought a bit of culture to her life. And then the COVID-19 pandemic captured her public health attention and put the world on pause. That left more time to watch movies.
She had seen most of the zombie and virus shows out there already, but she had not seen Outbreak, perhaps the most famous of the 1980s viral shockers with an all-star cast. Outbreak has a great cast (Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr. Donald Sutherland, Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey. Sutherland plays the ultimate villain (preparing for his evil role as President Snow in The Hunger Games). Dustin Hoffman plays a military doctor whose ego leads him to frequently buck the system, facing a divorce and an insulting reassignment while a devastating outbreak unfolds. Spacey, Gooding, Jr., and Russo play great supporting roles, and Patrick Dempsey in an unrecognizable role as the one who starts it all. Morgan Freeman, as always, is standard Morgan Freeman, upstanding, forthright, but this time caught on the wrong side.
Despite its television-type subplots and side dramas, Outbreak is still an enjoyable movie. It shows the devastation of what can happen when a virus moves faster than health systems, policies, and governments are prepared for, perhaps landing a bit too close to home right now. It also shows the intrigue when certain government officials hide the truth behind their efforts and how those infected, the innocent people of the world, pay the ultimate price. Do we learn nothing from movies?
The girlfriend and I had watched 12 Monkeys before. It’s one of my favorites (Terry Gilliam — one of my top 10 favorite directors!). But it had not captured her attention. It’s an intricate time-travel plot with many subplots that require close attention. I had seen the movie many times before, so know its plot backwards and forwards. I’m a big Bruce Willis fan (good old David Addison). I think this is by far Brad Pitt’s best role. I read that in order to get Pitt to act as crazy as he did in this movie, Gilliam took away Pitt’s cigarettes. Also, Madeline Stowe is superb, and David Morse is the kind of calm, sinister evil movie villains are made of. And we get Christopher Plummer as the Nobel-prize winning virologist and Brad Pitt’s father, unwittingly unleashing a world killing virus due to bad management.
The plot is intricate, including multiple instances of time travel to different eras. Gilliam presents a world of technological nightmare as he did also in Brazil, with its various fish-eye lenses and topsy-turvy camera angles. It all serves for realistic nightmare worlds and paranoia that fuels the believeability that such a breakdown of the world and 5 billion deaths is possible.
And as we watch today’s news several months into this pandemic, we start to see Gilliam’s genius vision as horrifyingly prophetic. If you haven’t seen 12 Monkeys, you’re in for a wild ride with this sleeper classic.
World War Z
Admittedly, I’m not a fan of zombie movies. I don’t watch The Walking Dead, and I don’t know all the variations of George Romero’s movies nor the ways to kill a zombie (baseball bats and shotguns to the head, right?).
But I absolutely love World War Z. It’s part apocalyptic, part cure-the-virus medical thriller, and all action movie. And the zombies aren’t slow-moving drooling monsters of yore. They are fast, committed, and work together to overwhelm cities as quickly as ants at a red-and-white-checkered-table-cloth picnic on the grass.
This is another movie starring Brad Pitt with David Morse in another thrilling supporting role. Despite some rather bonkers policies, I doubt North Korea is attacking the virus with the kind of teeth predicted in this movie. But would they if they had to? The zombies are not like those in other zombie movies — they are infected by a virus, and the virus has a weakness. Class and country no longer mean anything in this movie. Everyone is affected.
The movie ends without diminishing the despair, but with hope for the future, just like today, if we all work together to overcome.
I hope you find fitting entertainment for your own quarantine and stay-at-home existence during this pandemic. Stay well, enjoy the movies, and don’t forget the popcorn.
Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English for 25 years in every time zone in the continental United States. He has lived on a sailboat and writes about film and movies, literature, baseball, and growing up in the San Fernando Valley. He edits the Medium publication Valley Dude and is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please.