A cough in the darkness. A drop of blood on an airport floor. A visitor from abroad, coming ashore at the docks. A satellite from space, brought back to us with lumps of unidentified material trapped inside. If movies are to be believed, there are all sorts of ways in which a pandemic can start. There is one way, however, more terrifying than any other. One bearer of mass destruction against which there is no defense, and which none of us could ever have foreseen: Emma Thompson.
At first blush, it seems odd that such a smart and liberal-minded woman as Thompson should be the root of all calamity. It’s hard to picture her jotting it down on her to-do list: “Eggs. Milk. Global extermination. Shampoo.” But there she is, at the beginning of “I Am Legend” (2007), in the role of Dr. Krippin. (The name is a none too subtle warning, given the notoriety of the real Dr. Crippen, who was hanged in England, in 1910, for the murder of his wife.) With a modest smile, the doctor confirms to a TV interviewer that she has, indeed, cured cancer. All that’s required, she says, is a touch of bioengineering—some hooey to do with harnessing the measles virus and pointing it in a new and beneficent direction. That, at any rate, is the plan. Regrettably, it goes awry, and the Krippin virus proceeds to do its worst. Within three years, it kills 5.4 billion people, or ninety per cent of the planet’s population. On the plus side, lions are doing fine.
Mass extinction is an old favorite among moviemakers. They relish the idea that vast numbers of people will, given judicious marketing, pay good money to watch vast numbers of other people being wiped out. The extinguishing can take many forms. Ornery extraterrestrials come in useful, and earthquakes are a blast, too, as evidenced in “Earthquake” (1974), which was a close contest between seismic activity in Southern California and the firmness of Charlton Heston’s jaw. And you can’t beat a nice old-fashioned asteroid, although that didn’t stop Bruce Willis, in “Armageddon” (1998), from having a crack. In the end, however, nothing gets under our skin, or into the spongy lining of our lungs, like a plague film. Nowhere else do we find so enticing a ratio of frisson to relief. We are pricked with dread as to what could happen to us, in a time of ruination, only to be suffused with existential smugness, later on, as the lights go up and we realize that nothing has happened. For now.
The whole genre of fever flicks is having a moment, and the moment has lasted since the start of the year. It was on the final day of 2019 that the first cases of a new disease were reported in China. As the coronavirus has evolved from infancy to its peripatetic prime, it has colonized the human conversation. Whatever your take on the outbreak, you will find a movie to match your point of view. You want origins? Try “Contagion日本一本一道经典视频” (2011), whose closing minutes reveal that a Chinese bat gave something nasty to a pig, which gave it to a chef, who gave it to Gwyneth Paltrow, who generously gave it to mankind. Don’t fancy the zoonotic theory? You prefer mad scientists, breeding hell in a jar? I propose “12 Monkeys” (1995), in which a lab assistant with a ginger ponytail goes through the Baltimore/Washington airport, bearing flasks of something odorless and merciless. He is off to trot the globe. Too conspiratorial? O.K., let’s settle for sane scientists, conscientiously doing their duty, until external forces—thieves deployed by a millionaire, in “The Satan Bug” (1965), or animal liberationists, in“28 Days Later” (2003)—break in. The pathogen is stolen or, infinitely worse, set free.
Some of these scenarios, to be honest, are scarier than others. I soon got bogged down in “The Satan Bug,” largely because everybody entering the underground research complex, with its multiple levels of security, keeps having to pause while a sliding glass door goes “pffsschh日本一本一道经典视频” and the air leaks out of the plot. At the other extreme lies “World War Z” (2013). Miss the first ten minutes of that, and you’d be too late for the initial burst of strife, with terrified Philadelphians fleeing from something—or somebodies—that we can’t yet identify. Seldom, thereafter, does the pace relent. We glimpse a screen, at a military command center, that registers “Projected Loss,” and it’s already at three billion and counting. (Think of the National Debt Clock, off Bryant Park, reconfigured for deaths.) The story requires Brad Pitt, as a former U.N. gofer, to flit between continents in a hectic hunt for a cure, and though much of his quest, in retrospect, could have been conducted via a clever technique known as “phone calls,” you’re with him all the way. “The biggest cities are the worst off,” he is told. “The airlines were the perfect delivery system.” Tell me about it.
It could be argued that “World War Z” has nothing to tell us, precisely because of the “Z.” If I’m asked to nominate a film that might suit, or somehow illuminate, our present plight, my first question is always: “How do you take it? With or without zombies?” Pitt isn’t racing around trying to stockpile ventilators, or to sew a handy batch of face masks. He’s racing away from people—from those who, once bitten by a zombie, take a few seconds to recompose themselves before jerking back to life, or a crazed facsimile of life, and then swarming to and fro in their hundreds and thousands, seeking whom they may devour. Much the same goes for “28 Days Later” and its sequel, “28 Weeks Later” (2007), in which the infection can, at short notice, transmute even the gentlest soul into a red-eyed ravener, noisily vomiting gore.
Such terrors are not ours. But they are, so to speak, our regular dreads intensified—superheated, speeded up, and luridly lit. We worry about being stuck in bed with a rocketing temperature and drenched pajamas; we worry about our elders, who may be home alone and afraid to be visited, or wrestling for breath in the back of an ambulance. Such worries are only natural. Our imaginings, though, defy both nature and reason. They are as rabid as zombies, falling and crawling over themselves to fabricate what comes next. Dreams travel worstward, during a fever, and one job of the movies is to give our dreams, good or bad, a local habitation and a name.
Say, for example, that your habitation is Manhattan, and that you have it pretty much to yourself. Is that an all-consuming nightmare or an opportunity for a spree? The man to ask is Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), the lone survivor of the Krippin virus, in “I Am Legend,” though not quite as lone as you’d suppose. His companions include Sam, a German shepherd, and an assortment of Dark-seekers—very cross cannibalistic types who emerge at night and can’t be relied upon for civilized conversation. No matter. Smith is an enjoyer by instinct, and the movie works best when Neville barrels up and down the city’s weed-infested avenues in a scarlet Mustang, or tees up on a rear flap of the A-12 Blackbird, on the deck of the Intrepid, at Pier 86, and practices his swing. “Yeaahh,” he says out loud. “I’m gettin’ good.” A rarity among dystopias, this film has the gall to suggest, however briefly, that the apocalypse might be fun.