Pandemic and disaster genre films, shows: To see or not to see

To some movies such as Contagion and Chernobyl are an uncomfortable reminder of a grim present and a grimmer future. For others, it is about hope.

pandemic, movies, coronavirus, COVID-19, Contagion, The Virus, Chernobyl, Netflix, web series
In an Instagram live chat with Indie Wires Eric Kohn, Luna, who is back home in Mexico city, said the response to COVID-19 by governments is similar to what happened with Chernobyl.

Many times art imitates life but what happens when life mimics the movies, echoing doomsday scenarios being played out in reality?

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, films such as Hollywood blockbuster Contagion and the Malayalam thriller The Virus have made their way back on the top of most viewed charts with people either fleeing or flocking to them.

They are either fans or not — few maybes in these days when much of the world is under a lockdown to ward off the pandemic, which has infected more than two million people and claimed more than 1,37,000 lives.



Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 eerily prescient medical thriller Contagion, which deals with a deadly virus that is spread via a bat, stands right in the middle of the whole ‘to see or not see’ debate.

To some, it is an uncomfortable reminder of a grim present and a grimmer future. For others, it is about hope.

“Soderberg dealt with everything in-depth and my take away from it was one about hope. I know that a cure for COVID-19 will come sooner or later,” said Rakhi, a homemaker.

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Khusboo Bhatia, a senior executive at an MNC, said she prefers rom-coms these days and wants to stay away from films that echo the present.

“I haven’t watched Contagion, more so because of the reviews received by people who have watched it and the uncanny resemblance to the current situation in countries affected the most,” she said.

Soderbergh’s film starts in China and shows the virus spreading worldwide, exacting a toll of over 25 million people.

As COVID-19 travelled from China to Iran, Italy, Spain, France and across the world, the film also saw a surge in viewership across many platforms while emerging as one of the most watched films on Amazon Prime Video and was the seventh most viewed movie on iTunes in March in the US.

According to a recent paper released by piracy analytics company MUSO, Contagion saw a jump from 546 visits on January 7 to 30,418 visits by January 31 on piracy streaming sites.

The film’s pirated download saw a surge of whopping 5,609 per cent in January, however, figures for the following months are not available yet.

The Virus

Malayalam filmmaker Aashiq Abus’ 2019 directorial — The Virus — is not fiction but documents recent history with many parallels to the present as it focuses on the 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala that claimed the lives of 17 people.

It documents how Kerala responded quickly to contain the outbreak and a group of doctors worked round the clock to trace those infected by it and their contacts while talking about Islamophobia because of the index victim.

Kerala has come in for praise for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic as it became the first state in India to have successfully flattened the pandemic curve.

Meanwhile, just as shown in the Malayalam movie, the outbreak as well as the debate over the pandemic has taken on communal overtones in many parts of the country.


Long before Contagion and Virus was the Morgan Stanley-Dustin Hoffman starrer Outbreak.

The 1995 feature was about a group of CDC scientists racing against time to stop the spread of a new viral hemorrhagic disease, added with a plot twist about an army general who wants to use the disease as a bio-weapon against the enemies of the US.

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The current scenario of many alleging China to have purposely created the coronavirus in a lab and spread it across the world to boost their revenue while all the nations take their help for supplying medicines and equipment, draws similarities with the movie which was released more than 25 years ago.

12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam’s cult classic 12 Monkeys, which was released the same year, is about a man (Bruce Willis) who travels back in time to stop the group, called Army of the Twelve Monkeys, from releasing a deadly virus that has nearly wiped the whole humanity.

The Flu

In 2013, came the South Korean thriller The Flu, chronicling the spread of a highly dangerous strain of H5N1 virus in the city of Bundang.


If a list could be prepared for films dealing with pandemics, zombie outbreaks or even natural disasters, Chernobyl will take the first slot.

Retracing a nuclear disaster and the government’s poor response to it, HBO’s 2019 hit series tells the stories of the first responders to the nuclear disaster in 1986.

Other films

With pandemic-thriller becoming a newly hyped genre Will Smith’s I am Legend, Milla Jovovich’s Resident Evil series of films, Pitt’s World War Z, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later, and South Korean hit Train to Busan are some of the best-remembered movies.

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On the TV and web series front, shows such as Walking Dead, its spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, Netflix series Kingdom, and National Geographic’s miniseries The Hot Zone, based on Richard Preston’s book of the same name, dealt with an outbreak of a highly-contagious disease making them more relevant to the current scenario of the coronavirus outbreak.

Not many fans

Not everyone is a fan of this genre, particularly, because several of these movies draw unbelieve levels of similarity with the present situation.

Sidaq Batra, a film aficionado, said movies dealing with doom and gloom are the last thing he wants to watch now.

“I don’t look forward to doomsday films, only for the reason that everything seems to be doomed,” he added.

Sharing similar views, Shubham Pandey, a journalist, said he would rather focus on finding interesting movies from previous years.

Raj Nidimuro, who co-directed the 2013 movie Go Goa Gone about a zombie outbreak, said he has consciously taken a decision to cut-off scary and negative things.

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“These films will make you think even more. Instead, I am watching regular grounded shows. I have also cut off seeing news and reading on social media about all the articles that are written. The news anyways is coming to me. So I don’t want to overindulge in the news,” he added.

Like many others, Thappad co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul is also indulging in content that will keep her happy.

“I’m watching light stuff because the news is horrifying enough. We are already in it and to watch all of that,” she said.

Mexican star Diego Luna, best known for his turn as a drug mafia in Narcos: Mexico and Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, said he watched Chernobyl during his self-isolation and it was terrifying.

In an Instagram live chat with Indie Wires Eric Kohn, Luna, who is back home in Mexico city, said the response to COVID-19 by governments is similar to what happened with Chernobyl.

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“I remember in London one day before we were told it was time to go home, I tried to watch Chernobyl and it was such a big mistake. Terrifying! I was seeing the reaction of so many governments to COVID-19 represented in that show. That beginning of the show where the authorities say no, no, nothings happening, everything’s under control. It sounded so much like what we were living in,” Luna said.

In the end, the debate still remains the same, since to see or not to see — that is the question, but it’s purely an individual’s choice and we’re not judging.

(With inputs from agencies)