Tuesday, March 10, 2020

CoronaVirus CoVidEo Corner: Plague Film Bonanza: Part 3

To Recap:

Weirdo that I am, I'm commemorating the CoVid19 lockdown by watching plague movies, and because I love you, dear reader, I'm writing them up for you, and I'll end the series with a nice best-of countdown!

If you aren't up to date on the series, the rules for inclusion or need a full description of the scoring, or you want links to the other installments in the series, I'll put a recap at the bottom of this post, or you can read the full description, the official rules, and find links to every part of the series on the table of contents page linked here.

Films that fail to hold my attention get a DNF (Did Not Finish) and no score (that would be unfair).

Films that hold my attention are scored on four dimensions:
Frightening (Is it the kind of scary that builds up, and stays with you afterward?) Dread & anxiety get points here.
Scary (Is it the kind of scary that makes you jump in your seat, or wish you'd eaten a smaller lunch?) Surprises and gross-outs get points here.
Plausible (Does the plague, and people's response to it, seem realistic, as if it could possibly happen?)
Awesome (Is it a good movie? Does it hit its marks?)
Each of these dimensions will be scored out of five.
Finally, for bonus demerits/points:
"But wait, there's more!" stinger (Does the film end by hinting that the infection is on its way to a sequel new location?) That's tacky, and I take away points depending on the amount of cheesiness.

Coming Up in this Review:
And The Band Played On (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011-2017)
World War Z (2013)
Contagion (2011)

CoVideo Corner sidebar: Social Distancing Edition:
This post discusses a set of films about claustrophobia, isolation, boredom and helplessness: the feelings we're all feeling during our stay-at-home quarantines and self-isolation.

Click to read the reviews!

And The Band Played On (1993) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: 
And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the Aids Epidemic is a book about the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, written by Randy Shilts, who died of the disease himself. I'm stretching the qualifying rules just a bit to include this, because it was a TV movie, not a film that had a cinematic release, but it is much better quality than some of the films I'm reviewing that did get a cinematic release, so we're going to go with it. I'm also putting it first in this post because it's probably the most important plague film I'm going to cover. The book and film are damning indictments of the US government's failure to respond to the AIDS epidemic in a timely and appropriate way, because at first it was perceived as only affecting the gay community, and Ronald Reagan was perfectly happy to ignore a small minority that made his voting base uncomfortable anyway. By the time the disease had spread outside of the urban gay community and the political incentives to deal with it lined up, it was far too late for most of the measures that could have contained it, and so we continue to deal with AIDS and HIV today.

The Good: I am making a point of including this film for this reason: it is a grim reminder of how political incentives can complicate the containment of an epidemic, something we are seeing again in 2020. Where Donald Trump is hinging his reelection chances on continued positive economic indicators, and a full disease containment protocol might lead to an economic slowdown, he has incentive to deny the disease and encourage people to keep going to work and spending money. Where admitting the US healthcare system is poorly set up to deal with a huge epidemic, he cedes ground to his political opponents who want to improve healthcare, meaning he has incentive to claim the healthcare system is good enough as it is, regardless of the facts. Where CoVid 19 is likely to hit low income, service industry workers and those with inadequate healthcare harder than anyone else, and be harder to track because of the cost of testing, we might again see the kind of denialism that allowed the disease to spread unchecked among populations without a loud political voice, before exploding into populations who do, only to discover the opportunity window for interventions that could have checked the disease's spread has already closed. As for the film itself, its cast is absolutely loaded - Richard Gere, Ian McKellen, Alan Alda, Matthew Modine, Phil Collins, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin - watching this film is a big game of "She's in it too?" The acting, therefore, is great. The film is long, but we root for the protagonists, and its production value is definitely higher than some of the zombie and b-horror films covered elsewhere in this series. The film has aged very well: hindsight about the HIV/AIDS epidemic makes this film about its early stages ever more poignant.

The Bad: The film is long. It's a drama, so it doesn't have the thrills and chills of some of the other films in this series. If you're looking for gross-outs rather than conversations between virologists and politicians, this isn't the film for you. But if you want to see how a disease actually becomes an epidemic, this film is excellent and important.

Frightening: This film is not frightening in the "It's waiting outside my door" way. Simply because the disease's first name was "Gay-related immune deficiency," it was politically radioactive (Heyy! Remember back when homophobia was mainstream? Not that long ago!) was the disease's first name. A politician says "I'll introduce the bill, but if all the angels came dancing down to earth like the rockettes, they couldn't get a dime out of this administration for anything with the name gay on it"  Not because of the imagery, camera work, editing or sound design, but because it shows how easily political concerns, desire not to impact the economy, complacency and unconcern for politically disenfranchised groups can cause decision-makers to stand by or take half-measures when they should push the big red button. This film is pants-shitting terrifying, simply because It. Has. Happened. Already. and that is the scariest thing of all. Now that we know how the AIDS epidemic has turned out, hindsight makes it incredibly sad and frustrating to watch people make decisions that we now know were deadly mistakes, and makes it terrifying to imagine that people could be making such decisions right now. Not for the reasons I usually award points, but 5/5

Scary: Again, not in the "In the House, In A Heartbeat" way, but the cringe when another politician or decision-making body votes down, or decides against a necessary action, sure is frustrating. And the idea that political complacency or economic concerns would override a proper disease response is haunting and frightening enough that I'm giving the film two extra points for being so frightening. 2/5

Plausible: Well, it actually happened, so, there's that. 5/5

Awesome: There is a dang good scene where Matthew Modine asks "how many dead hemophiliacs do you need?" (before the blood industry starts testing its blood supply). And later, when the blood bank (again) votes not to test its blood supply because of the cost, someone at the blood bank asks the powerful question, "Let me ask you this: when doctors start acting like businessmen, who can the people turn to for doctors?" The crisis unfolds in terrible slow motion. We watch funding requests declined or denied, again and again, as we follow a few people who get it slowly gaining access to higher and higher chambers of decision-making power to make the case that AIDS is a crisis and needs a response. It is satisfying to see those people persuaded, but agonizing when they take half-measures, or decline to act until their hand is forced. The film effectively uses montages of real news footage from the time of the outbreak. Altogether, it is a full two-and-a-half hours long, but throughout, there are well-written and acted vignettes as doctors and disease investigators visit and meet AIDS patients and their bereaved families, trying to trace the disease or confirm facts about it, which really bring home the human impact of this disease. Some of the other plague films don't do a good job of putting a human face on the sickness: it's all about oozing blisters and gross excretions, or scientists in labs and mobs raiding grocery stores, but this film makes damn sure we see the impact AIDS had on its victims and their families. Ian McKellen is especially good, and Alan Alda's Dr. Gallo is a pretty good villain. -1 point for length 4/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? The film ends with Rock Hudson telling the media he has AIDS, which brought concern about the disease into the mainstream in a way that could no longer be denied. The closing credits are a montage of celebrities who died of AIDS, or who were part of educating the public about AIDS, and helping AIDS victims, over an Elton John song written from the perspective of a father whose son died of AIDS. It's pretty damn heartbreaking. Considering that this film covers real life events and the AIDS epidemic continued for years after the end of the film, yes, there was more, but this is not a cheesy "look out for the sequel" kind of story, so no demerits.

Verdict: As I write this, Coronavirus Disease 19 is making inroads in the USA, and I am communicating with one of my dear friends from university, who lives in Portland, and who is close enough to the margins that a work disruption or a hospital stay could be really really bad news for her family. The line from the film sticking with me is this one: "Let me ask you this: when doctors start acting like businessmen, who can the people turn to for doctors?" As Coronavirus is making inroads in the USA, I worry that a for-profit healthcare system simply isn't built to deal with a crisis like CoVid19, and this film really brings home how easily political incentives or complacency can create conditions where an outbreak becomes orders of magnitude worse than it needed to be. The film is vital for that, and anyone whose government is taking half-measures should see this film and make their local representatives see it, too.

Total Score: 17/20 As with Perfect Sense and The Host, the scoring system I'm using doesn't do a good job of reflecting this film's strengths, and why/how it's important. This film isn't scary or gross in the way most plague films are, but it is a gripping drama that puts a human face on the AIDS crisis of the 80s, and watching the inaction and complacency of policy makers and healthcare decision-makers is only more infuriating in hindsight. It is the most important film in this series, bar none.

12 Monkeys (1995) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: 
Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt give two of the weirdest performances of their careers in this batshit whackadoodle Terry Gilliam film, where Bruce Willis is a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic future, trying to prevent the release of a plague that kills 90% of the planet. The plot is intricate, looping back on itself and making the audience feel as confused and lost as Bruce Willis's character, Cole, as he discovers the authorities sending him back in time might not have been totally honest with him. Once all is revealed, the storylines converge in a perfect, bleak bow, wrapping up the story as airtight as a hazard suit.

The Good: 1990s Bruce Willis was incredibly watchable, and he is perfect in this film playing a traumatized tough guy trying to puzzle out a problem when the stakes could not be higher. Brad Pitt plays against Willis's straight man with a twitchy, erratic, magnetic performance as a possibly brain-addled, possibly correct conspiracy theorist trying to help Cole in a case of the deluded leading the confused. This film is dense and bears multiple watchings. It also includes one of the best uses of a Tom Waits song in a film ever.

The Bad: The film probably requires multiple watchings, and the first time through, you'll feel like you've been thrown in a pool, blindfolded. Just like the protagonist Cole.

Frightening: Thanks to time travel, this plot takes place before and after the devastating plague but not during, so while we don't see the plague unfold, the date it arrives approaches, and its perhaps-inevitability looms over the action and drives the main character. That we see the hellscape future where it has wreaked its devastation increases the stakes for Cole's effort to prevent it and explains his desperate urgency, and the sinking feeling as we start to worry he won't be able to lingers. This film is plague-adjacent rather than a direct plague film, but it sticks with you. Or at least it stuck with me. The film is also gritty and grim, in both the 1990s, where much of the action happens in slums and squalid mental hospitals and the like, and in the future, where the effects of the plague show a world where people have been forced to live underground (in dirty steampunk dwellings) to survive. The idea that this is our future is frightening. 4/5

Scary: There aren't many jump-scares or real stomach-churning gross-outs though what there is, is pretty graphic - when a character suspects the creepy future government is tracking him through a tooth implant, he pulls out his own teeth. Cole is also a violent man, ready to punch his way out of a bad situation, and the threat both of his violence, and violence from authorities trying to restrain him brutally, lead to action sequences that emphasize the brutality, making it more wince-worthy than thrilling. 2/5

Plausible: This film's premise requires a pretty big suspension of disbelief, though that is mitigated by seeing things from the perspective of Cole, whose mental state makes him a very unreliable narrator. The action, the settings and the characters are heightened to the point of stylized zaniness, as most Terry Gilliam films are. However, as with Gilliam's other films, the world is very fully realized and rich in detail, too, and Bruce Willis's performance somehow sells his weird character's weird behaviors as believable choices by a confused man trying to understand and accomplish an unclear mission with dizzyingly high stakes. He pauses in his mission from time to time to take immense joy in things like car radio music or sunshine or water-filled ditches, making you believe he's spent much of his life underground, in some vivid moments that add humanness to the character and the story. The way the plague ends up being released is plausible enough. The idea of a future government that is invasive, manipulative, oppressive, and more interested in your loyalty and demonstrating their power over you, than in your achievement of the assignments they give you is, unfortunately, disturbingly believable in 2019. 3/5

Awesome: Again, the plot is intricate and ties together in a beautifully tight bow. The performances, visuals, and design create a claustrophobic, confusing, intriguing world that drips out just enough information to keep viewers interested, right until the end, when the last screw turns, everything clicks into place, and all questions are answered, only to have the satisfaction of those answers snatched away. It is one of the films I saw in the 90s that has stuck with me the most vividly all the way until now. 5/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? Given that this is a time travel film, and we already know the future, this hardly applies, but the plague plays into the film's ending in a very important way.

Verdict: The plague is more of the backdrop than the point of the film, but it's carefully constructed and expertly calibrated puzzle-box of a time travel film that keeps you guessing, and yet somehow all ties together at the end.

Total Score: 14/20

Cabin Fever (2002) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: The directorial debut of Eli Roth, better known for gory stuff like the body horror classic Hostel. It's the classic premise. Some horny teenagers go to a cabin in the woods. Once there, instead of boozin and sexin, they end up dyin. A hobo with a disease appears at their cabin, covered in open, bleeding sores, and they chase him away. Later they catch the same disease one by one, while extraneous characters from the nearby countryside wander through the frame for some reason.

The Good: There is some nice gore in this, if you're into the body horror. Boils and blood blisters and oozing fluids. The good looking people are indeed good looking, so if eye candy and some classic horror movie nudity (boobs and heterosexual doinking) is what you're here for, you will get it.

The Bad:  This film is bad. Not a single character is likable, and not a single one gives a clear sense of who they are, and why they make the decisions they do. Usually you can at least tell who the jock is, and who the nerd is, and stuff. Even the locals who live around the cabin, when approached, are weird (and not scary movie weird, just off-putting and badly acted) and do or say things that make no sense and have no motivation, other than to be sure every scene ends with shouting or hitting something. Oh, and because this movie was made in 2002, and that was a thing people did back then, there's a character who expresses her dislike for things by saying "That's so gay." That and the N-word joke that turns out to be the setup for another N-word joke... yah. That happens too. 

Frightening: They try, but fail to sell it.  1/5

Scary: They do that cliched thing where a couple is getting into some intimate touching, and then someone takes their hand away and it's covered in blood. Except it's not just gross because blood: it's also gross because she's sleeping when he gropes her. And he's supposed to be the likable one, I think. There is some good gross-out blood wound kind of stuff, if bloody gore is all you're looking for, but there are better places to get your gore. 0/5

Plausible: Why would a woman with a festering sore disease shave her legs? What would that person say that thing to a person acting like that? (repeat 20x) Why would...why... why... why everything, people. Why everything? What is life for? Not many films are bad enough to give me existential angst about lost hours of my life. 0/5

Awesome: This film escaped a DNF because so much was happening all the time so it certainly didn't bore me. But everything that was happening was bad. Perhaps this is the kind of film that would be really enjoyable to watch with...um... enhancement. Or... with a really witty friend who also likes bad scary movies, with whom you can do the MST3K treatment and just bark wisecracks at the screen all movie long. That would be fun, but the points would go to my witty friend, not the movie. 1/5 and only so that the final score isn't negative.

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? There sure is. A really obvious, prolonged one that tops itself, and tops itself again in cheesy obviousness. -2 points.

Verdict: Sometimes a film is so bad it's good. And sometimes... I'll let my favorite line from Ghost World fill you in.

Total Score: So bad it goes past good and back to bad again. 0/20

Cabin Fever 2016 - The Remake: DNF): Who the f*#& would watch Cabin Fever 2002 and think "Lawd the world needs more of this"?

Planet of the Apes Trilogy (Rise of the Planet of the Apes - 2011 (IMDB); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - 2014 (IMDB); War for the Planet of the Apes - 2017 (IMDB))

The Skinny: While superheroes hog the spotlight, we've all been sleeping on the Planet Of The Apes reboot trilogy, which has quietly used impressive visuals not as an end to themselves, but as supporting elements for well-crafted stories with clear characters, meaningful conflicts, with some moments of surprising emotional complexity. This is as good as Hollywood franchise storytelling gets. The plague element is not the focal point of this story: the conflict between humans and apes is, but two plagues, the first one (shown at the end of the first and the beginning of the second film) wiping out a majority of the human species and the second one (with its first outbreak shown in the third film) wiping out humans' ability to speak and perhaps also their capability for higher order thought, are inflection points giving apes an absolute survival advantage over humans. I'm going to treat the entire trilogy in one write-up here, though these films do suffer a little of the usual diminishing returns of sequel-itis, they jump in time, and tell different stories. Planet Of The Apes is one of those stories where we already know the ending, because we've seen (or at least know the premise of) the 1968 original, so like in the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, the pleasure of the story is not so much in twists and surprises, but in the process of seeing characters we know and like getting from here to there.

The Good: In The Girl With All the Gifts, I was amazed that we were rooting for a zombie that looks like a ten-year-old girl. Now we're rooting for a highly intelligent ape who just wants a safe place for him and his to live unmolested. These films have impressive visuals, remarkable motion capture acting on the part of the actors portraying the apes, but most impressively, they never thought that would be enough, and never let effects stand in place of good storytelling. Rather, each film is a coherent story, with consistency and clear motivations for characters both human and ape. Caesar is a really excellent character in his own right, sympathetic but also well-justified in his motivations: humans have not been good to apes, and don't really deserve their mercy, though by the third film we've seen that apes are just as capable of duplicity, cruelty and ugliness as humans.

The Bad: It's hard to pick problems that are big enough to impact the storytelling in one of these films, much less across three films, unless viewers simply are not on board for the entire premise of The Planet Of The Apes franchise in the first place. So many films are just bad, lazy or sloppy, that simply by avoiding common mistakes, these films put themselves among the best-told stories of their years (especially the first two). The slavery and concentration camp parallels in the third film are a little on-the-nose, and yeah, it's a little depressing to see that ape nature turns out to be just as crappy as human nature, in what humans and apes are willing to do to each other when they have power. Even though they're English language, a lot of the apes' communication is through grunts, hoots and moans, even after they become intelligent, so I find these films much easier to watch with subtitles on.

Frightening: It's fitting that the plague is created by a human: as a moral of the story, it seems spot-on to portray humans as careening toward their own self-destruction, as we appear to be doing exactly that. The initial virus is described across the closing credits of the first film and the opening credits of the second, and in the third, the people attempting to organize humanity's last stand are infected with a second virus (or a new phase of the first?) which robs them of intelligence and speech.  That stick-in-your-head dread can't really take over, because we already kind of know the ending. Because the film is unwilling to paint either apes or humans as evil monsters, they veer away from the kind of dread an implacable enemy brings, and because it's more accurate to say the plague is part of the film's setting than its main plot mover, the film doesn't give it enough attention for it to drive our emotional response to the story. 1/5

Scary: Again, these are stories about friendships, communities, protecting one's community and defending one's values, not stories about plagues - they're just the setting - so the story focuses on life changes, threats, and moral choices rather than festering boils, victims vomiting blood, or contaminants poisoning water supplies. Even the plagues we see are mostly bloodless, and almost all of the plague-related suffering happens off screen. Basically, these films aren't trying to scare us. 1/5

Plausible: The premise that a hotshot scientist would unintentionally create a plague that overwhelmed the human immune system is not nearly far-fetched enough. Plaguewise, that's the scariest thing about the film trilogy, and the most plausible, too. Once you accept the premise that a plague has wiped out humans and made apes super-intelligent, the way the action plays out makes logical as well as emotional sense for the characters we care about. 4/5

Awesome: These films are awesome. The pacing is a little slow at times, but the films' success at conveying complex emotions through motion capture effects continues to astound throughout the trilogy. The human characters are played by a series of excellent recognizable-but-not-superstar character actors you've seen in other Hollywood films, holding up their end capably, and the weakest of the three (the third) features a lights-out villain performance from the still-underrated Woody Harrelson (but also some gratuitous cute from Hollywood's cheapest trick: a vulnerable little blue-eyed white girl) while the second features all-time bad-guy-actor Gary Oldman. The three films explore big questions about leadership, community, war and peace, dignity and determination.  4/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? The first one tells the story of the plague in the ending credits, and retells it in the beginning credits of the second. A second disease starts to move during the third film. However, I'll let it slide because it's part of the premise of the entire Planet of the Apes backstory, and we can't retcon Charleton Heston's awesome realization at the end of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film now, can we? Everyone knows how it ends anyway, so no deductions.

Verdict: The third film gets a little cloying in its themes, and none of the films are really about plagues, but they're worth seeing, especially the first, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which as close to a perfect movie as we can probably expect to come out of a well-known IP.

Total Score: 10/20 Again: this is 10/20 as a plague film. As straight-up films, their score would be much higher (Rise: somewhere around 18/20, Dawn: maybe 16, and War, perhaps 14 - sequelitis is another plague spreading diminishing returns around Hollywood), but it doesn't have the scares, gross-outs, horror or imagery I'm looking for when I look for popcorn plague films.

World War Z (2013) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: Speaking of popcorn plague films...

A zombie virus is sweeping the planet. Brad Pitt is a UN investigator whose particular set of skills is real handy when things go south. He is assigned to brave the sprinting zombies that somehow swarm like ants, flow like rivers, and go really really fast, and get to the bottom of the outbreak. The film bears almost no resemblance to the excellent book of the same name, but and  the zombie genre fits the Hollywood summer blockbuster template like crocs at a fashion show, but the whole shambolic mess somehow works better than it should have. I won't say it's good per se, but it's less bad than I'd have expected from a film both so far removed from its source material, and aiming to be a popcorn movie. As an book adaptation, it's awful, wandering far from the source; as a zombie film, it's a little above average, with one big problem; approaching it as a plague film probably casts it in its best light possible, as it works better as a plague film than as anything else (except, perhaps as a star vehicle for Brad Pitt.)

The Good: Gerry Lane, Brad Pitt's character, is on a mission that brings him to different parts of the world. In the book, he does this long after the zombie war has been won by humans to compile a UN report and an oral history of the zombie war. In the film, he does it during the initial breakout, and this investigation works as a pretense to bring him around the world and see different aspects of zombie origins and behaviors. This is just enough of a frame to hang a story on, and Brad Pitt is always watchable. I tracked the film's production troubles on movie news websites, and this film barely made it to cinemas, so I expected it to be a huge pile of crap. Instead, after they re-shot the entire ending... it worked (and the original ending sounded like crap)! Other good points: some of the zombies were quite terrifying, especially the tooth-rattling one and the one trapped in the medical lab, and the zombie mayhem at the beginning is some of the best zombie mayhem I've seen, probably second only to the Zack Snyder Dawn of the Dead.

The Bad: In order to resolve the plot in a Hollywood popcorn movie sort of way, they had to change the standard rules for zombies. This diminishes it as a zombie film, and some of the film's best moments, effects and visuals (cool as they are) create plausibility or fridge logic issues for the film as a whole. Having read the book, it's disappointing that the film wandered so far from the source -- I only spotted two or three spots where elements from the original book were preserved in the screenplay -- but that wouldn't matter to non-readers. I'm also not a fan of sprinting zombies... but again, we're reviewing this as a plague film, not a zombie film.

Frightening: Basically, the reason I don't like sprinting zombies is because it almost always cashes in its 'frightening' points for 'scary' points. Jump-scares are flashy and make theatergoers shout and grasp their date's hand, but they make a film less rewatchable when you know which closets contain boogeymen and which closets don't. That grim, creepy horror movie tone probably didn't fit a Hollywood summer popcorn movie (Zombieland didn't have it either), which might have been why they didn't go that way, but any zombie film is diminished if they flinch away from the inherent creepiness of plague or zombie films. The film's final act finds a good way to build up the tension with a welcome stealth mission, but it's too little, too late after the action-moviefication of the rest of the film. 1/5

Scary: Because it wanted that lucrative PG-13 rating, the film also veered away from the kind of blood and gore that zombie films usually have. The violence was startlingly bloodless, given that it's a zombie film, even when Gerry Lane cuts off the arm of a marine whose wrist has been bitten.  There are a few jump moments, but the chills particular to a zombie (or plague) movie are replaced with the kinds of thrills you might get from any war film or a particularly gun-heavy spy film. 2/5

Plausible: Nope. That zombies would breach that wall in that way, that Brad Pitt's plane would crash so close to a W.H.O. lab, that the zombies would have the particular weakness Brad Pitt discovers, and that a sprinting zombie would somehow be perceptive enough to notice such a thing at top speed is unbelievable, even for a film where we're allowing that sprinting cannibal monsters exist who can turn you into one of them in twelve seconds with a bite. As I said earlier: if you have to make up new rules to beat your monster, your resolution might be a cop-out... it makes it more interesting as a plague film, but worse as a zombie film, which is what World War Z wants to be. The way zombie crowds move looks cool, but it also gets sillier the more you think about it. Everything about the second airplane scene is ridiculous. This film tries to be fun enough that you don't notice any of these problems, and nearly manages, but doesn't. 1/5

Awesome: As I said, the movie works better than it seems like it should, and plotwise, it's basically a string of vignettes in unrelated locations -- which works much better in the book, where each location has a different narrator -- than it does in the film, where one protagonist has to show up in South Korea, Jerusalem, and Wales in the middle of the intense chaos of a zombie outbreak. There's some good work in small parts from a lot of character actors throughout the film. It's fun, but in a good bad movie way, not a good way. 3/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? Quite the opposite.

Verdict: More fun than it should have been, and better as a plague film than a zombie film, if you wanted proof Brad Pitt could make almost anything watchable, this is a good case for his place in the "rescuing crap movies from the crappy crapper" hall of fame.

Total Score: 7/20

This mini-review was brought to you by Pepsi.

Contagion (2011) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: 
Stephen Soderbergh directed this 2011 film, partly based on the 2009 H1N1 breakout, and it traces a pathogen that makes first human contact and spreads around the world, until eventually a vaccination is found. It is an omnibus film (made back before the omnibus film trend curdled and started to be terrible), following a pretty big ensemble cast of different people from varying fields, including scientists, Center For Disease Control and World Health Organization employees, opportunistic hucksters, and plain old ordinary civilians as they respond to the outbreak.

The Good: This film is really effective. The acting and the cast is top-notch, and it makes really effective use of montages, brief scenes between characters in different positions, and time jumps to fill in information gaps and fully flesh out what a plague is, how authorities and people respond to it, and what impact it might have on the world. We see everything from irritated phone calls between a CDC official and his wife once he realizes how bad things are, but that news isn't public yet, to an opportunistic blogger using people's fear to sell fake medicines, to a dad who realizes his wife's been cheating on him, because her infection broke out in Chicago, where her ex lives. The pacing is impeccable, and the film has been praised by scientists for its accuracy. I also like that the vector of transmission here isn't a storage container full of illegal immigrants (boo racism) or evil environmentalist polluters (heavy handed), but a privileged, pretty white lady who most of us would invite inside if she knocked on our door asking for help.

The more I watch, the more I see that almost all horror films, if you strip away the tropes and the artifice, are what passes for morality plays. Who gets rewarded (the virtuous, virginal final girl), who gets punished (the slut, the jock and the bully) usually boil down to the same moralizing tropes that have been in stories since the bible and Greek myths. Those who are punished have sinned, and the only hard part is sometimes figuring out what their sin was. If you go through the films in this blog series, many of the outbreaks are traceable to some original sin by a character, organization or government. I was going to say I like that this disease is random: it comes because it comes, and that's it. But... the montage at the end shows the virus's origin, and it's the bulldozer cutting down rainforest that disturbs the bat which originated the virus. That bulldozer belonged to patient zero's employer, so... neocolonialism, environmentally exploitative capitalism, deforestation and (after the bat passes its virus to a pig in a pork farm) factory farming... is the real villain here. Once the virus is unleashed, though, there's no moral code that unlocks who is saved and who is punished, which, again, is true to life. Some scumbags survive, and some saints die. There isn't a virginal final girl who survives the killer here, which is appropriate. One of the most annoying things about liking horror films is the cloying moralizing that goes into a lot of them, and seeing a film that doesn't go into that is refreshing.

The Bad: I have no idea how this film was successful during its theatrical run, as sitting in a theater with a few hundred strangers seeing all the ways they could bring about my untimely death sounds like the opposite of a good time. It didn't go as far as Outbreak, setting the main point of transmission in a movie theater, but still. I am a little surprised, for a film with such a sweeping scope of a disease, didn't spend any time at all on the kind of impact a disease would have on the world's economy, or what it would look like in an overwhelmed hospital.

Frightening: This film has stayed in my head longer, and better, than almost any of the other plague films, because as you watch it, you get the convincing feeling that "this is how it would actually go" and you watch failsafes and precautions fail, you watch people take a trip they shouldn't, brace for loss, dread what that cough might mean, and feel just as helpless as the characters do when there just isn't a treatment yet. I almost gave this 4/5 simply because it was fiction, but as the CoVid 19 virus spreads, this shit is playing out in real time, so I'm bumping it up to 5/5.

Scary: It's not scary in the zombies-clawing-at-the-door way, but there's a slight pause when someone touches an object and infects it, and for the rest of the scene you're watching for someone else to touch it, or when someone touches their face, or a door handle, or a dish, so that by halfway through the film, your alerts go on every time someone touches an object, or their face, and you're trying to spot the next moment of transmission, and rooting for the characters you like not to grab that city bus pole. It's not a jump out of your chair film, but it is very effective at making every mundane object a threat. 4/5

Plausible: Contagion is far and away the most plausible plague film I've watched. The set of symptoms, the reactions of the characters, the procedures of the Center For Disease Control, the efforts to communicate between government, scientists, and population: the film is a gripping story, but the scenes and conversations manage to be incredibly educational about what an epidemic is, how it spreads, what civilians (both good and bad) do in response, how rumors and pseudoscience spread, and what the authorities can do about all these things. By following characters through the entire cycle of the epidemic, we get to see every step of the process. 5/5 only because I can't give more. This is to plague films what The Martian is to space movies and My Cousin Vinny to courtroom films.

Awesome: This film is well-edited, the music is great, and it makes really excellent use of montages to convey a lot of information in a concise way, without ever venturing into cheesy territory. It's directed by Stephen Soderbergh, a real master of the filmmaking craft, and the cast is absolutely loaded with excellent actors doing good work. The scary parts are scary, but the ending, when they've beaten the plague, and everyone, both good and shitty, faces the due consequences of their actions during the outbreak, is a nice catharsis, too. 5/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? None. In fact, Contagion gets a bonus point for its ending: first we see scientists put a sample of the virus in deep storage, then we see a montage of how the virus spread to humans in the first place. It is chilling in its banality, but finishes the picture with a nice "Aha!" +1 point.

Verdict: The sheer plausibility and accuracy of this film makes it one of the two actual scariest of them all, because it could happen like this. Add to that an excellent production, cast, and direction, and it sets the gold standard for plague films. This is the best-made plague film, in terms of craft. And The Band Played On is the most important one, because of its relevance. If you only watch one plague film, flip a coin between these two.

Total Score: 20/20 Slow clap.

Series Recap:

Back to the Table of Contents, where I explain all this in more detail.

It has to be a film. There might be some great plague television out there, but I have a kid: binge watching six TV series that are too scary to share with my kid this week is off the table. I think I'm going to add right now that it has to be a narrative film, not a documentary.

The film has to be about a plague or viral infection. That is, the film has to put significant attention on what the infectious agent is, how it spreads or works, and what can be done about the infection. If the response is "we need to hide from/kill all the zombies" it's not really a plague film: it's a zombie film. If the response is "we can beat this if we discover and exploit a weakness in how the virus spreads" then it's a plague film. (So, World War Z: yes; Dawn of the Dead: no.) There's a little wiggle room here, and I'll be making some calls. Deal with it.

Films that fail to hold my attention get a DNF (Did Not Finish)

Films that hold my attention are scored on four dimensions:
Frightening (is it the kind of scary that's moody, builds up, and stays with you afterward?)
Scary (is it the kind of scary that makes you jump in your seat, or wish you'd eaten a smaller lunch? Surprises and gross-outs get points in this category.) More on my theory of movie scares in the table of contents.
Plausible (does the plague, and people's response to it, seem realistic, as if it could possibly happen?)
Awesome (is it a good movie? Does it hit its marks?)
Each of these dimensions will be scored out of five.
Finally, for bonus demerits/points:
"But wait, there's more!" stinger - does the film end by hinting that the infection is on its way to a sequel new location? You know...the montage where the contaminated water ends up at a bottling factory while ominous music plays? Yah those are cheesy, and I will be docking points for them, depending on the amount of cheesiness.

It's unlikely that any film will get a 20/20 on this scale, because frightening, scary and plausible are usually a trade-off: films that make me jump like a cat usually don't also make me fear door handles, and a film that does both probably asks for a big suspension of disbelief in the plausibility category.

Back to Part 2
감기 (The Flu)
Black Death
Extinction: The GMO Chronicles
괴물 (The Host)
Viral (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts

This was Part 3
And The Band Played On (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011-2017)
World War Z (2013)
Contagion (2011)

Coming up in Part 4:
Antiviral (2012)
Maggie (2015)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Pandemic (2016)
Stephen King's The Stand (1994)
28 Days Later (2002) / 28 Weeks Later (2007) duology
The Invasion (2007)

CoVideo Corner sidebar: Social Distancing Edition:
This post discusses a set of films about claustrophobia, isolation, boredom and helplessness: the feelings we're all feeling during our stay-at-home quarantines and self-isolation
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Cube (1997)
The Shining (1980)
Room (2015)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Oldboy (2003)
Chicken Run (2000)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Descent (2005)

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