Viral: When Epidemics Hit Cinema

15935 cases. 5689 deaths. No end in sight.

So far, the 2014 Ebola Outbreak is spiraling down the path of a Hollywood disaster movie, but without the happy ending. It makes me wonder then what cinema will make of this terrifying global epidemic. Can it resist adding Ebola to its list of new disaster plots, from financial ruin, terrorist attacks, and severe climate change? Doubtful. Which is why I believe it’s worth revisiting films that arose under similar conditions, films like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011). These “epidemic films” are similar in premise: a deadly pathogen is spreading in susceptible populations, and a group is tasked to save humanity. But where does salvation lie? And what can we learn from cinema’s attempt to grapple with a very real and terrifying epidemic?

Outbreak introduces Motaba, a fictional virus that causes viral hemorrhagic fever, similar to its cousin viruses Ebola and Marburg. The virus is first discovered in Africa, wiping out an entire village, before being destroyed by a US military firebomb. Of course, the virus survives, and is later introduced into America through an illegally smuggled (and infected) monkey. Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) is tasked to investigate by his superior officer (Morgan Freeman), but things go awry when the Army appears to be keeping secrets about the virus, infections start increasing, and, worst of all, the virus begins mutating.

Contagion runs a similar theme: it introduces MEV-1, a meningoencephalitis virus that causes seizures in infected humans. In contrast to Outbreak, Contagion follows the outbreak through the stories of various characters. There are patients, experts, and hacks, each with their own stories that provide a human face to the overall story of the MEV-1 outbreak. As society breaks down and people are reduced to their most basic fears, scientists race to find the cure.

At face value, these “epidemic films” are essentially thrillers with science mixed in. Outbreak offers memorable acting by Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman but a minimal plot. Contagion excels where Outbreak fails: by telling a more complex story through various characters, portrayed by an amazing ensemble cast including Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet. In Contagion the story evolves as the situation evolves. There is more at stake when there are more players to show us that the world itself is falling apart at the seams.

But at the same time these thrillers require a suspension of belief. Under the guise of “science” and “medicine,” they effectively suggest to the audience: “the less science you know, the better you will enjoy this.” Science, or rather the idea of science, is the real star of the epidemic film. Outbreak’s magic serums will save Cedar Creek, and Contagion’s vaccine will save the uninfected. But where did these epidemics come from in the first place—from nature, from people, or both? We see in the very beginning of Outbreak a witch doctor forebodingly stating “It’s not good to kill the trees.” Contagion ends with a short explanation of how MEV-1 came to be, namely by bats being knocked out of their trees by humans. For two hours we watch humans running about, using science to win against Nature, but aren’t humans responsible for the problem to begin with?

It is here that epidemic thrillers find their niche. The pathogen may be unknown, exotic, and frightening, but the true adversary is human nature. People spread viruses through interactions (illegal monkey smuggling, people travelling abroad), and people also behave irrationally, causing pandemonium and social breakdown (the Army attempting to cover up the epidemic, a man trying to sell snake oil). Perhaps that is why, in the epidemic film, “science” is always the savoir: it offers the restoration of sanity in the form of cool-headed scientists.

The lesson is clear in both films: keep calm and trust the scientists. Yet today as we watch the news, it’s nearly impossible to escape the constant update of “Ebola Watch” and the dangerous “what if?” these media stories pose. It’s almost as if our nightly news reports are part of a cinematic plot we’ve all seen before. Both Contagion and Outbreak are back in the news [and back on Netflix/Hulu]. Do these films heighten our hysteria over Ebola? Maybe. But I also think they might be offered as an antidote. Cinema, in this case, serves as the foil to news. Yes, the science is highly accelerated (if not illogical) compared to reality, and yes, the audience knows everything will turn out alright in the end compared to now. However, epidemic movies with neat, clean endings can calm fears by introducing a world in which there is hope that everything will be righted. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rise in people watching Contagion, and I expect an announcement of an Ebola-inspired epidemic movie in the near future. News, after all, is a hyped reality of now, but film is a positive possibility of tomorrow.