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Seeking Safe Exposure? Stream These Pandemic Movies 

Published March 25, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated April 1, 2020 at 10:21 a.m.

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Earlier this month, the mostly forgotten 1995 blockbuster Outbreak suddenly leapt into the Netflix Top 10. That isn't the only thriller about a deadly disease that Americans have been streaming in record numbers. In the Guardian, Charles Bramesco speculated that people are "flocking to these films for a sanctioned version of exposure therapy, in which an inconceivable menace can be experienced and survived."

Not all medical disaster movies are created equal, though. Some offer an educational dose of likely scenarios; others distract us by reshaping our worst fears into an adventure with a Hollywood ending. Watching four high-budget pandemic movies, two from the U.S. and two from Asia, I found instructive parallels and differences, not to mention catharsis, insight and absurdity. Besides being included with subscriptions (as noted), all of the following movies are available for rent on various platforms.

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Contagion (2011)

  • The disease: MEV-1, a fictional virus that causes encephalitis within 24 hours with a 25 to 30 percent mortality rate
  • Source: A jet-setting businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) on a trip to Hong Kong
  • Where it must be contained: It isn't, though Minneapolis and Chicago are placed under quarantine.
  • Disturbing parallels: Panic buying. Social distancing. Public unrest and disbelief. In my 2011 review, I wrote, "You will not want to touch your face after seeing this film. You will not want to enter crowded rooms. You may feel a sudden urge to relocate to a plastic bubble, or Antarctica." It's scarier now.
  • Government (in)action: Despite some friction among government officials, they're the heroes of this tense procedural, which gained in realism from the expert advice of epidemiologist Larry Brilliant. The bad guy is a blogger who touts a miracle cure.
  • The solution: [Spoiler alert!] A researcher defies orders and tests the vaccine prototype on herself. It works, but vaccinating the entire population is no finger-snap.
  • Stream it with your subscription on: Cinemax

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Flu (2013)

  • The disease: A mutated strain of avian flu (H5N1) that kills within 36 hours with no incubation period
  • Source: Migrants smuggled from Hong Kong in a shipping container
  • Where it must be contained: Bundang, South Korea
  • Disturbing parallels: This high-budget Korean disaster film is even soapier than Outbreak; everything pivots around a movie-star-gorgeous doctor, her adorable kid and her budding romance with an emergency responder. Amid the suds, though, there are nightmare images of airborne virus droplets and quarantine camps into which the infected and uninfected alike disappear.
  • Government (in)action: English-speaking World Health Organization authorities and local businessmen play the heavies, but South Korea's president eventually stands up for human rights.
  • The solution: [Spoiler alert!] Antibodies from the original carrier
  • Stream it with your subscription on: Amazon Prime

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Outbreak (1995)

  • The disease: "Hemorrhagic fever" with a 24-hour incubation and a whopping 100 percent mortality rate
  • Source: A capuchin monkey smuggled out of Zaire by slacker stereotype "Jimbo" (Patrick Dempsey)
  • Where it must be contained: The fictional small town of Cedar Creek, Calif.
  • Disturbing parallels: Most of Outbreak is "Hollywood" enough to be more fun than terrifying, but two scenes are exceptions. In one, virus droplets spread from a coughing man in a crowded theater; in the other, a nameless everywoman hugs her kids and goes into quarantine, never to be seen alive again.
  • Government (in)action: Donald Sutherland plays a general who's itching to incinerate Cedar Creek and everyone in it.
  • The solution: [Spoiler alert!] Antibodies from the original carrier. (In case you're starting to wonder: Antibodies from recovered patients are a potential treatment for COVID-19, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, but they're not the instant fixes depicted here and in Flu.)
  • Stream it with your subscription on: Netflix

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Virus (2019)

  • The disease: Nipah virus, which has a two-week incubation and (in this film) a 75 percent mortality rate
  • Source: While most of these movies start with Patient Zero, Virus is a detective story, focused on authorities struggling to trace the outbreak to its source.
  • Where it must be contained: The state of Kerala, India
  • Disturbing parallels: Based on an actual 2018 outbreak, Virus is, like Contagion, an absorbing procedural that cleaves chillingly close to reality. With a plot involving overloaded hospitals, a respirator shortage and forced cremations of the dead, the movie could be ... triggering. But it's also full of stirring portraits of everyday heroism.
  • Government (in)action: The military is eager to treat the infection as an act of bioterrorism. The health minister and her colleagues must prove it happened naturally.
  • The solution: [Spoiler alert!] Authorities manage to contain the disease after 17 deaths. There is still no vaccine or cure for Nipah virus.
  • Stream it with your subscription on: Amazon Prime

The original print version of this article was headlined "Safe Exposure | If you still want to stream pandemic movies, here's an annotated guide"

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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