DULUTH, Minn. — I've seen news reports this month that pandemic movies are trending. People always have enjoyed exploring their fears through art, and it's a common observation that movies reflect the times in which they're made.
This makes "Outbreak" (1995) and "Contagion" (2011) prophetic, I suppose. I also suppose that at the time, they were unreal enough to seem fun. With time on my hands recently, not having left the house in a week, I watched these two movies with mixed results.
With both, I forgot about real life for a while and was horrified by the movie instead. Some viewers might take comfort in the "they have it worse than me" phenomenon movies can provide. And the problem gets solved by the end, so that's a pretty relaxing and satisfying two hours.
Nevertheless, I do not recommend anyone watch these movies right now. I asked myself, "What is the matter with me?" more than once. But for the curious, I'll compare. Be warned of spoilers; I'm assuming you don't care.
If you need to watch a pandemic movie, "Outbreak" is a safe choice. There are military doctors with evil motivations, the kind of dark pasts you see in comic books. There's a cute monkey and a young, curly-haired Patrick Dempsey. In an overplayed and badly acted subplot, Dustin Hoffman pines after his ex-wife. He later jumps out of a helicopter. Cuba Gooding Jr. barfs in his hazmat suit. Humor all around, the kind of movie you could make a drinking game about.
Perhaps more absurd, though is the admirable yet utterly unrealistic and immediate, coordinated response to the crisis. There's a clear chain of command, supplies are at the ready, everyone seems well-trained and ready to handle the situation. Soldiers easily make the mental switch from protecting the public to needing to kill them. Much of the human behavior on display wasn't, well, human. Worse, there were no characters I cared about saving; I celebrated when one character died. Any time that happens, we've left reality, so maybe this movie really is a popcorn-eating escape.
On the other hand, "Contagion" is terrifying from start to finish. It's a scenario that feels current. There are no contrived conspiracies or military strongmen. Plus, there's Minnesota stuff in it. Cases are reported in "Carlton and St. Louis counties as the virus continues to spread," a newscaster on KARE 11 reports. The characters seem actually smart; the science seems real. Jude Law has fun as a conspiracy-theory blogger. (I'm a sucker for journalism stuff in movies.)
The movie includes humbling statistics about how many times a day people touch their faces ("three to five times every waking minute," thank you Kate Winslet for that). I cared about all the people because they seemed like real people, flaws and all, so I wanted all of them to be OK. (Psst: They're not going to all be OK.)
Deaths come quickly, not from a mile away so that you're rolling your eyes by the time it happens. "We're just trying to get to Wisconsin!" Matt Damon yells. Canada won't send us more body bags. We learn about social distancing, not shaking hands, washing our hands. Sound familiar? People run out of food on Day 26, though, so maybe that part isn't real. Let's hope we don't all soon find out.
There are colored filters artistically layered over much of the movie, anxiety-inducing music subtle enough that you don't know why you feel anxious. It all wrapped up into a big package of "Oh no! This isn't fun!"
The difference between these two movies is literally the difference between one cute monkey and "a lot of dead monkeys." It's the difference between laughing and crying. And maybe people are needing both right now.
In the end, I'd like to recommend the palate-cleansing "Nature" documentary called "Leave it to Beavers" that I found on Amazon after my pandemic binge. It, too, was an escape from everyday life, and it was cute and nice and happy. Pandemic movies might be trending, but it's a trend we don't need to follow.
"Outbreak" is streaming on Netflix. "Contagion" is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.