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Outbreaks on film

Kevin Cheng watches films on the theme of outbreaks and epidemics.

23 March 2020

There is not a single person who is not grounded, isolated, or in some way disrupted by the coronavirus emergency. For those of us who are lucky, during our mandatory or voluntary isolation, we can retreat to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime or YouTube to stay entertained. We can take advantage of these times to catch up on British dramas, motor racing, or classic series from a virtual world far far away, but there are also films in the archive that speak more directly to our current situation. Since we are digging in our trenches and staying here for the next 4 to 12 weeks, why not take this opportunity to watch these films and reflect on what we can do when we come out of this. 

In every film with explicit reference to an outbreak (e.g. Outbreak, 1995) or implicitly in the form of an epidemic (Contagion, 2011; I am Legend, 2007) there are lessons that serve us well. Before reality hit us last week, we lived in a world of complacency where many of us believed (including those who should know better) that we were in a comfortable and untouchable place away from Milan and especially Wuhan. In the film Outbreak, the secret agent (played by Morgan Freeman) is certain that a government-held virus is not airborne. But out of complacency, the virus mutates, becoming airborne. Similarly, the walled cities in World War Z (2013) are swarmed with zombies climbing over each other to breach the wall – officials thought they had the contagion covered. How do we prevent complacencies? There is insight to be found from the automatic industry (Parasuraman & Manzey, 2010).

When nature inevitably finds a way (according to Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, 1993), there comes surprise and even denial. But eventually, there comes a state of panic. The masses are compelled to flee, both physically and psychologically distancing themselves, and acquiring comfort objects that reduce anxieties. The notion that diseases are dirty or filthy means that things are wiped away and flushed into the abyss. But the panic solves nothing, as Chihiro in Spirited Away (2001) learns when she comes to terms with her predicament.

Eventually, most blockbusters give the audience a sense of hope with a twist. In World War Z, hope came not with evidence, but with insights, projections or premonitions that go beyond the evidence (Klein, 2013).

These films end not with a solution, but with a glimmer of hope, that through insights we can find a way to the truth. In World War Z, there is a sense of uncertainty laced with hope. In I am Legend, the new generation is given another chance but there is no certainty that it will be alright. In Outbreak, there is victory. In the Jurassic Park series, the sense of hope is ongoing and in flux. In Spirited Away, there is revelation – but it comes with the realisation that while human ingenuity is almighty, if it is not met with respect to the environment, the imbalance will forever be dangerous and destructive. And it is here that I think we should most reflect.

- Reviewed by Dr Kevin Cheng, a social and cultural psychologist at Regent's University London

Parasuraman, R. & Manzey, D. H. (2010). Complacency and bias in human use of automation: An attentional integration. Human factors52(3), 381-410.
Klein, G. (2013). Seeing what others don't: The remarkable ways we gain insights. Public Affairs.