15 Once-Great Movies the Pandemic Completely Ruined

15 Once-Great Movies the Pandemic Completely Ruined
Screenshot: Lost in Translation/Focus Features

There’s some new foolishness in the wind, you might not be surprised to learn, in the form of a, er, viral meme suggesting it was a vaccination program gone awry that created the “zombies” in the film I Am Legend. This is, apparently, a reason to be cautious of the real-life COVID vaccines.

A couple of problems here: the monsters were vampires, not zombies, and their origin story included nothing about a vaccination program — the vampirism was actually triggered by a [checks notes] virus. Also, perhaps more significantly: THE FILM IS FICTIONAL.

If even one person refuses a lifesaving vaccine solely because they can’t tell vampires from zombies from reality, that’s too many. More insidiously, the meme has been used to reinforce the idea that epidemiology as a whole is in some way suspect. Either way, it kind of puts a damper on the prospect of rewatching what should be a fun, if harrowing, sci-fi thriller.

I Am Legend isn’t the only movie that has taken on new shading in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending upon your mood, you might find that these speak perfectly to you and to our times. Or you might find that they now hit so uncomfortably close to home that you never want to watch them again.

I Am Legend (2007)

A little more on the one people are talking about: I Am Legend. The pandemic has made I Am Legend much harder to watch for a couple of reasons: 1) Like the (brilliant) Richard Matheson novel on which it’s based, the movie does an excellent job of evoking a chilling sense of isolation. The paradox of the pandemic, I think, is that it’s given us a reason to be wary of crowds, but it has also demonstrated the real costs of isolation. Whatever else the film does well, watching Will Smith’s character move around the desolate, overgrown streets of New York says a great deal about loneliness; and

2) The other reason that the film has gotten harder to watch is, of course, because a non-zero number of people saw it and decided that it’s worth it to prolong a global pandemic with a body count in the millions rather than get a vaccine that could, possibly, turn them into a vampire.

Safe (1995)

In this unsettling 1995 Todd Haynes psychological horror drama, Julianne Moore plays a woman who grows increasingly convinced that she is afflicted with Environmental Illness, a condition that causes her to be violently, nose-bleedingly allergic to everything in the outside world. The only way she can stay, wait for it, safe is to keep herself completely isolated within a cult-like community of the similarly afflicted, where she proceeds to completely lose it.

I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

Jurassic Park (1993)

I love dinosaurs, and I love the Jurassic Park movies. I’ve seen and enjoyed every single one, even as the concept has gotten increasingly strained over the course of four sequels (with another on the way), plus an animated series. If it were only that first movie, it might be a different story, and an enjoyable pandemic escape watch.

But with each new movie, the plot must find new excuses for staff and visitors to return to the park that is almost guaranteed to kill them. It seemed patently ridiculous… and then we spent a year or so watching bars, beaches, and rallies fill to capacity, followed by the almost inevitable reports of related mass infections. Now I absolutely believe people would keep going back to that island, and reader: I hate it.

Lost in Translation (2003)

A poster from Lost in Translation stares out at me from over my desk, reminding me of the film’s success at establishing an incredibly evocative, but completely contradictory tone. It’s about two characters in a world that’s (literally) foreign to them: jam-packed, 24-hour modern-day Tokyo. Not a place that you’d expect to find isolation, but where Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray nevertheless find themselves cut off from everything around them. That feeling is uncomfortable in the best of times, but at least the film, finally, suggests that a real connection with even a single person among millions can be enough to get us through. Except right now, it’s best not to wander into crowded bars searching for connection — and things aren’t going so great in Tokyo either.

The Shining (1980)

There’s no perfect quarantine cluster. Even those of us with the best family dynamics in the entire world have, occasionally, found ourselves getting on each other’s nerves. JUST A BIT. The Shining conjures that feeling in the extreme: this layered Stanley Kubrick-direct Stephen King adaptation might be about a haunted hotel, or it might be about alcoholism, or it might just as easily be about what happens when people get stuck together, alone, for endless months. In these times, we’re all Shelley Duvall.

Unfriended (2015)

The clever and (mildly) underrated thriller asks the question: what if your online interactions COULD KILL? A vengeful murderer stalks several high school students, forcing them to stay online and at their desks for a Skype session that goes on way, way too long. Know the feeling?

Us (2019)

Us is probably every bit as uncomfortable now as it was in 2019, as it was meant to be. Jordan Peele’s even better follow-up to Get Out sees a family, and then a world, overrun by malevolent duplicates. On one level, it evokes the feeling that we’ve likely all had — that we’ve been spending way too much time with ourselves, and not always liking the company. As a broader metaphor, though, it tackles mental health in general, and it’s not incidental that the family at the film’s heart is Black. There’s a universality to the film’s story of alternate selves, but in issues of mental health, as with the pandemic, Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted.

Phobia (2016)

This one’s fairly straightforward: following a severe trauma, Mehak develops agoraphobia, becoming increasingly more isolated until she moves into a new apartment, alone. She develops some (distanced) friendships with her neighbours, but then begin to experience visions. They might be signs of a mental health crisis, or they may be the images of a murder that occurred in her new home. Without making light of the very real mental health crises that the pandemic has engendered — I think that most of us can relate to the idea of being alone so long that we start to get some really weird ideas about what’s going on around us.

Contagion (2011)

There are a lot of disease outbreak movies, but they’re generally flashy thrillers, whereas Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 takes a somewhat more down-to-earth approach to pandemic. It’s tempting to say that there result feels nearly prophetic, but Soderbergh and company consulted with a health experts and based their contagion on real-life epidemics of the recent past. Contagion didn’t look into the future, it just extrapolated on the things that epidemiologists already knew. Early in the pandemic, it became an odd comfort watch for many. Sixteen months later, I just want the end credits to roll already.

The Birds (1963)

Hitchcock fans remember bird attacks (and how could you not?), but all those vicious gulls, crows, and starlings are there in service of a deeper relationship drama. When Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels comes to the small, isolated town of Bodega Bay, she brings to the surface the conflicts between various locals, including the friends and family of Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner. As the movie progresses, and the circle of survivors gets smaller, a group of people who don’t like necessarily each other all that much grow increasingly isolated, their conflict mirrored by the murderous birds. By the end, it’s only by learning to at least tolerate each other that they’re able to form a truce with the avian aggressors. Though slightly uncomfortable, the metaphor works on both a family and societal level.

(The Miss Marple-looking ornithologist is 100% wrong, though, so let’s ignore the movie’s implications about scientists.)

Locke (2013)

Though there’s an impressive cast of voice actors involved in this one, the only person we actually see for almost 90 minutes is Tom Hardy, playing title character Ivan Locke. Throwing aside his responsibilities to his family and his job, Locke determines to be there for the woman having his baby on the other side of the country. Whatever the cost, he won’t make the same mistake that his own absent father had. His only interactions during the entire film are via cell phone conversations as he drives from Birmingham to London at night. Having some of life’s most important conversations happen on the phone (or on Zoom) rather than in person? I can relate.

Jaws (1975)

We’re going to close the beaches, right? We’ll just close the beaches, take care of the problem, and get back to it when it’s safe. Anything else would be absurd.

The Lighthouse (2019)

I used to dream of vanishing mysteriously from my job as a lighthouse keeper. Now I’m not so sure. Is complete isolation the worst thing? Or is true hell just other people? And, look, self-care is important, so let’s give poor Robert Pattinson (and ourselves) a few minutes alone.

Cabin Fever (2002)

It’s a teens-in-the-woods horror movie, except that the killer here is a gruesome, flesh-eating disease that gradually works its way through the group of friends. Isolation AND disease makes for a potent recipe for anxiety these days.

World War Z (2013)

You cans slot in almost any zombie movie here (Dawn of the Dead, Train to Busan, 28 Days Later, etc.)…I’m not sure that World War Z is the best of them, but it does suggest a truly global crisis in ways that others only hint at, and also has, as its focus, the idea of a vaccine as the best and most likely way forward. At the risk of pushing the zombie metaphor further than it was meant to go here, there’s also the sense that diseases make monsters — in the real world, that takes the shape not of infected zombies, but of indifference to suffering.

Girls Trip (2017)

Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, and Jada Pinkett Smith (try to beat that cast) set out on the titular adventure, specifically heading off to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. The movie was filmed during the actual festival held in 2016, and the idea of being in that big a crowd both fills me with jealousy and leaves me a little squeamish.

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