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Matt Damon emerges from a crowd of people in coats and medical face masks in 2011’s Contagion.

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We’re learning the big difference between disasters and disaster movies

Cinema didn’t prepare us for this — but a few books did

Matt Damon in Contagion
| Photo: Warner Bros.

The 2011 disaster film Contagion opens by documenting the sad fate of American businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s infected with a new, deadly virus while on a Hong Kong trip. She stops off in Chicago to hook up with a former lover, then returns to her home in Minneapolis, where her flu-like symptoms quickly escalate into a seizure and death. Director Steven Soderbergh leaps from person to person around the globe, chronicling the swift, messy demise of the people Beth accidentally infected, and then to everyone they spread the disease to, and so on, until international tragedy and chaos ensue.

As the coronavirus pandemic has escalated, lots of film buffs have pointed out the parallels between Contagion and our current situation. The movie shows people frantically washing their hands, and learning about social distancing. It shows the government holding urgent briefings, and closing schools and airports. It shows health-care facilities overwhelmed, shortages at stores, a few savvy people profiteering off the pandemic, and one man peddling a quack miracle cure. Sound familiar?

But while some aspects of Contagion are spot on, the feel of the film, the particular quality of panic, is oddly off. Disaster dramas are, naturally enough, dramatic. People die suddenly, often in large numbers or frightening ways, right in front of the point-of-view characters. The worst events come in swift, heightened sequences, featuring recognizable characters for the audience to invest in emotionally. That isn’t how coronavirus has worked for most of the world. We’re living through a global disaster on a scale that’s unprecedented for the modern, connected era. And living through it makes it queasily clear that all those widely watched disaster films haven’t given us much of a blueprint for coping with one.

In a scene from Contagion, Jude Law wears a homemade grey inflatable Hazmat suit with a square translucent bubble over his head as he distributes flyers reading “The CDC lies, they collaborate with pharmaceutical companies, there is a cure.”
Jude Law in Contagion
Photo: Warner Bros.

Coronavirus is a dangerous viral infection which spreads quickly. Experts believe the mortality rate is a bit less than 1%. That sounds like a low number, but it makes it around 10 times as deadly as the flu. If the 327 million people in America all contracted coronavirus, some 3 million people would die. Just as frighteningly, some 15% of cases feature serious symptoms, and some 5% are critical, with respiratory failure, septic shock, or other issues requiring intensive medical care. It’s easy to see how a serious outbreak could overwhelm the medical system.

Even in worst-case scenarios though, a disease in which some 80% of people exhibit mild or no symptoms going to leave the vast majority of infected people virtually unaffected. That means that for most people, most of the time, the experience of coronavirus is the experience of not experiencing coronavirus. As cities shut down and schools close, many of us are hanging around our homes, watching Netflix and occasionally making a run to the grocery store or pharmacy. Anxiety is pervasive, but rarely explosive. Most people are worried about the economic and personal fallout — losing a job or several months of pay or health-care access, losing a business or a home, or, further down the scale, having to cancel a vacation or being unable to visit friends. Most of us who aren’t healthcare workers are unlikely to actually watch someone die of coronavirus. We’re even less likely to have someone threaten to murder us.

But in disaster movies, shocking, sudden onscreen deaths and murders happen all the time. The zombies tear their way through half the cast, or the alien heat rays incinerate dozens of people as the protagonist tries not to be one of them. No disaster movie shows people sitting in their homes, nervously scrolling through Twitter. They don’t show people lying in bed, contemplating whether to put on pants for the day, or anxiously checking online listings to see who’s still hiring during a pandemic. Pulp entertainment is supposed to be entertaining. There has to be excitement and violence, or people will turn it off.

In a scene from World War Z, a long-haired, worried-looking Brad Pitt tries to escort his family to safety in a street filled with police, panicking people, and smoke.
Brad Pitt in World War Z
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

Disaster movies stick to pulse-pounding visceral disaster through a couple of narrative tricks. One is by focusing on the epicenter. The story in a disaster film is always about the first person or region affected. H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds — arguably the first modern disaster narrative — is set in the British town where the Martians land. David Cronenberg’s 1975 Shivers, about a nightmarish plague of slugs who burrow into people and turn them into sex zombies, is set in the Canadian high-rise where the infection starts. Kaiju films are generally set in Tokyo or Japan, right at the site of the giant monster attack. In real life, even in the worst disasters, most people are in places where the action isn’t focused. Films hone in on where the action is — which means they don’t capture much about the common experience of disasters.

The other disaster-movie approach is to create crises which affect literally everyone. The obvious example here is Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, where the prune-like purple antagonist Thanos kills half the population of the universe with a literal snap of his fingers. Everyone on earth is either dead, or knows many people who have died. The snap produces egalitarian, universal trauma.

Virtually no actual disaster works like this. Even climate change has winners and losers over time, which is part of the reason it’s so difficult to get people to address it: many people have at least a vaguely reasonable belief that they won’t be the ones to have their lives upended in a crisis. But disaster movies from 1978’s Dawn of the Dead to Netflix’s Bird Box prefer not just global catastrophes, but universal ones, where violent death comes for everyone, all at once.

In a grey, smoke-filled street, a crowd of people with their backs to the camera look up at an immense alien tripod looming over the neighborhood in War of the Worlds.
An alien invader in the 2005 War of the Worlds
Image: Paramount Pictures

Sometimes disaster movies do show folks who are slow to realize what’s happening. In Edgar Wright’s 2004 comedy Shaun of the Dead, for example, the gag is that humans are generally so gormless and dull that the protagonists don’t even notice when their neighbors turn into zombies. But by the end of the film, the clueless are either eaten or assiduously killing the monsters. The run time is two hours, and something major and intense has to happen in that window to make it engaging.

There are some exceptions to the pulp default of disaster-film excitement. And it’s no surprise that these exceptions tend to come from non-pulp narratives. Tom Perrotta’s 2011 literary fiction novel The Leftovers imagines a world in which about 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes. Everyone else is left behind to grieve and continue their lives much as before, now shaken by all the unknowns they’re facing. HBO’s television adaptation inevitably adds more violence and excitement, but it still gets at something essential about the current moment, in its representation of people trying to grapple not so much with disaster as with the absence of disaster. “The media was never able to settle upon a single visual image to evoke the catastrophe,” Perrotta writes in the novel. “There also weren’t any bad guys to hate, which made everything that much harder to get into focus.”

Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, about a slow, undramatic, sort-of zombie plague, also hits closer to home, with its descriptions of emptying streets and corporate closures in a New York slowly and confusedly trying to shut down. Severance is also relevant in that its narrative is determinedly non-linear. Candace Chen weaves back and forth through memories of her childhood, of her life before the epidemic, of her work. The nowness of the disaster drifts in and out, as if Candace, an amateur photographer, can’t quite bring it into focus. Like many of us under coronavirus, she isn’t always thinking about the one thing, even if she sort of feels like she should be.

Severance and The Leftovers are both about emptiness and things not happening. The details aren’t the same, but they get the feeling of our current moment right. This is a disaster in which a huge number of us are sitting in place, trying to ensure that things don’t occur. Disaster movies, by contrast, are about action to contain and defeat concrete, terrifying, imminent, present threats. Nobody wants to watch nothing happening. Disaster movies are fun. Disasters, as we’re all unfortunately learning, aren’t.