Viral Ventures: A Bunch of Fives

The Unimaginable, The Impossible, The Inconceivable, The Indeterminable and The All too Real . . .

In Brief: Over the years there have been films that have explored the impact on humanity of a viral infection taking hold, on a mass scale. It’s either global or more contained. Whatever they are, they focus on what might happen. They explore what might occur, usually concerning horror, terror, or other ideas that feature the human state of mind in a state where the every day is suddenly altered, replaced with a new reality where things are darker, bleaker and generally harder. What emerges are individual struggles, private battles and the extent people will go to to protect their loved ones. Whilst we’re all staying in a bit more than we might, Sci fi-pulse looks at five of from this genre, some of which have similarities, and sorts the healthy bodies from the too late to save carcasses, all so you don’t have to!

Outbreak – 1995

Dustin Hoffman heads up this big-budget foray into the world of the virus-based Disaster Movie. It’s fair to say that the virus is only really a plot device, and really the threat that requires heroics could have been anything. The film begins with a quote by Joshua Lederberg (Nobel Prize-winning Scientist), that “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus”. The action then gets underway, and the story begins in 1967, in Zaire. On-screen is a small monkey, that lets out a scream as its habitat is destroyed. An ongoing guerrilla type war is being played out, and a local camp is discovered to be exposed to some sort of virus. The symptoms are extreme, seeing those who become contaminated decline rapidly. They have skin lesions and difficulty in breathing. A doctor talks of a “strange disease that killed 30 people yesterday”. The army medics weigh up the situation, agree to send in supplies, but the plane that arrives drops a powerful incendiary device and wipes out the whole area, presumably killing off everything . . .

Viewers are back in present-day (then 1995), and witness Hoffman, along with Kevin Spacey and Rene Russo going about their work in viral studies and health administration. Before long, they really have something to contend with, as a white-headed capuchin monkey is smuggled into the country. It has the virus, from Zaire. It looks to be the same species as the one from 1967. It bites someone, and infects them, starting off a rapidly spreading virus. Hoffman’s Scientist character suspects something, but Donald Sutherland, playing an Army General, commands Morgan Freeman’s character that Hoffman’s character is off the case. The film plays on the whole “a scientist warned us” trope. At the time, the movie was quite well received, but looking back now, it’s far from great. It’s a big bucks adventure, and the quote it used is never qualified, explored, or expanded upon. Among the love story between Hoffman and Russo (Russo’s character inevitably gets the virus), is a conspiracy involving the virus being kept as a biological weapon. The story comes from a Hollywood re-imagining of some of the findings of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story (1994). Stephen King called some of the passages in that book, describing the effects of diseases as the most mortifying thing he has ever read. Yes, that bad. The science is always secondary, and the film is an enjoyable caper, but it never gets anywhere close to being an exploration of the real human cost of something like this going on. The plausibility breaks down quite quickly, as increasing hostility between the good guy and the evil CIA black ops element takes over. A standard performance by Hoffman (who dominated the 1990s) and co., with very little for them to really do, in all fairness.  Of course, he and Cuba Gooding Jr. save the day, and a cure is found for the virus, via the unlikely locating and capturing of a very small monkey, in a comparatively large area. A nice piece of cheesy nostalgia for those who saw it the first time around, but for first-timers, it will likely feel as dated as it now looks.

 

SCi-fi Pulse’s Infection Factor: 6.7/10

 

28 Days Later – 2002

More zombies, of a sort, anyway. Under the directing prowess of Danny Boyle, and Alex Garland script is the small budget venture on offer. Before the main-story plays out, we get the standard exposition of the back-story. Animal Rights Activists break into a laboratory, near Cambridge (presumably associated with Cambridge University), and attempt to free some caged chimpanzees, who are likely set to undergo testing; the scientist they encounter warns that the animals have been tested upon, and are infected, with what he says to be rage . . . The scientist begs them not to let the animals out of their cage, but they don’t listen. Soon, one of the freed chimpanzees leaps on one of its liberators and is savagely biting her face. There is screaming, and then the scene ends . . .

28 days later we see a man, played by Cillian Murphy awakes in a hospital. There is nobody near him, and the hospital seems to be completely deserted. The man is puzzled but begins to wonder about it. Outside he sees further evidence of abandonment and wanders around. Civilization is nowhere to be found. Soon, he comes across Selena, who explains to him what has happened. He introduces himself as Jim. Britain has been overtaken by humans who have been infected with a disease that makes them vicious killers, rabid and unable to operate as anything else. If bitten, or if the blood of one gets in the eyes or mouth, you become one. Standard zombie stuff. What makes for a truly innovative film though is the take on an established genre. Naomie Harris shows her character. Selena has become extremely hardened to things, in the time that Jim has been in (presumably) a coma. She is a machete-wielding bad-ass, that tells Jim he is only a second away from her killing him if he becomes one of them. The two form a tense partnership, as they travel to the home of Jim’s parents. Once they arrive, they find that Jim’s parents have chosen to end things before they were got by the zombies. The scene is harrowing and seeing it really brings home how much the people we love are our entire world. Whilst this is playing out, the music being played is somber, and adds to the intensity of the raw, hard scenes. It’s a million miles from a gorefest, and the two survivors are just average people, not your heroic types. They are humans, turned brutal to survive.

After seeing some bright Christmas type lights on a block of flats, the two go to investigate, Here, they meet Brendan Gleeson’s Frank, a father who is protecting is daughter, Hannah, played by Megan Burns. The two are holed up in one of the flats, and after a tense encounter and a few obligatory killings later, Frank instructs his daughter, Hannah, to let them in. Then, using a wind-up radio, the new alliance hear about a survivor settlement camp, near Manchester. They decide to head there, after a series of arguments about whether that’s the best move . . . On the way they stop at a supermarket and get essential supplies; they go on to a pub, and Jim feels he wants to investigate. He encounters a turned child and has to dispatch of him. He doesn’t talk about anything. When they arrive at the compound, things aren’t quite what they seem. Events are made the harder as one of the group doesn’t make it to the place. That’s a big moment in the film, and the dynamic soon changes.

Enter Christopher Eccleston, playing Major Henry West, the self-appointed military head of the camp. He introduces the soldiers who have been holed up in the old country house. The grounds have been rigged with floodlights and land mines so that if there is an attack, they have some way to see what’s happening and the explosions will alert them. It’s not long before the real reason comes to light that West wanted to attract others. The darker side of the human condition emerges, and a tense series of scenes play out, including a cat and mouse style pursuit and hunt. Whilst not given the main part, Stuart McQuarrie helps to bring a real sense of the foreboding of the film, and his opposition provides the grounds for the battle that ensues, the result of sinister motivations and an absolute iron will to make sure that the results aimed for are attained. It’s not long before the fight reaches its dramatic and bloody conclusions. There is violence and gore, but it is secondary to the atmosphere of madness, horror and deeply human evil, which is in many ways far more uncomfortable viewing than seeing people mauled by flesh-eating monsters. This film well and truly gets under the skin, never once relying on special effects or plot devices to provide its tension. Yes, Hollywood has its moments, but it isn’t always the place great cinema comes from; this all British affair more than stands up against bigger budget blockbusters, it surpasses many, for style, script, and performances. You deeply care for the characters, who are believable and vulnerable, are wowed by the realism and gripped by what comes to pass. It’s the close studying of psychology that allows this film to get under the skin and stay there for a long time afterward.

SCi-fi Pulse’s Infection Factor: 9.4/10

I Am Legend- 2007

Zombie films have a way of being either dull, formulaic, ridiculous, or a combination of all three. Few over the years are memorable as innovative pieces of cinema. Will Smith leads the way this time, and for much of the film, is alone. A role like this needs someone with enough screen presence to make up for the lack of any other actors. Smith has that, in abundance. He is Robert Neville, a single survivor, a U.S. Army Virologist, from a pandemic stemming from a scientific attempt (by Emma Thompson’s character) to cure cancer. 90% of people died, and the rest either survived or were turned into vampiric like zombies; the small number of survivors were subsequently wiped out by the “dark seekers”. That’s the setup, and the action takes place afterward. He has his trusty dog, Sam, who provides a great device to show just how much humans need contact and warmth with other beings. He and Sam have to be in by nightfall, as the mutated humans can’t exist in the light. Again, another good idea, as Smith’s role allows him free reign during daylight hours, to show the world, abandoned. When he goes to various shops, Neville “talks” to the shop dummies he has set up at certain points, and put hats and clothing on. It’s a simple touch, but one that’s powerful.

The creatures in this film are secondary to the driving forward of the central plot. Neville is determined to find a cure, carrying out experiments on rats, and, when he can find and catch them, the dark seekers. He keeps detailed records of his work, down in the laboratory of his home, the exteriors of which he has turned into a secure, makeshift fortress. Large, metal shutters ensure he can’t be broken into by the rabid monsters. Neville is a reluctant hero is only driven on by the pain he feels when he thinks of his wife and daughter, who were lost not because of the dark seekers, but in the panic which followed when things were still under some semblance of order. At times Neville jumps between hopeful, despondent and humorous. Will Smith really gets to grips with the role, managing to easily convince audiences that they are watching someone who has had almost everything (bar his own life that at times he holds no real value over) taken from him. As much as anything, this film is a brilliant portrayal of survivor guilt, and a shows someone who fights to find a way back, against a backdrop of zero hope. What he proves is that hope is everything, and sometimes it’s humanity as much as the science that really has a way of finding the answers, sometimes, when we’ve stopped looking. Even for those who (understandably) are sworn off zombie movies for life, this one is an exception to be made, and as enjoyable for tensely made action as it is capable of stirring the soul. If for no other reason, Smith’s performance is worthy of giving it a go.

SCi-fi Pulse’s Infection Factor: 9.2/10

 

Contagion – 2011

In some ways, Contaigon (2011) is much like Outbreak (1995), minus the Hollywood heroics. It’s a smarter film, with more of a natural feel. What the film manages to do is give more of a reality-based view of what might happen. The human side of things is the focus of the film. There’s no plot or the same race against time that happens in Outbreak. There’s some much better dialogue too and the sense of fear is more tangible. For a start, a household name Actor’s role is killed off in the first few minutes of the film. The view from “the inside” is achieved well by the playing about with linearity, as well as jumping about to various elements of the narrative; perhaps this is what makes the experience one felt more on an emotional or psychological level. There are flashback scenes, laced in well. Experts watch security footage back, to try and establish who “patient zero” is. What the film avoids is any conspiracy type plot. The result is a tight movie, with a realistic feel to it. Matt Damon leads the way in proceedings. We don’t get the typical action hero wannabe of other virus movies; instead, he’s an everyday guy who is left to look after his daughter. That is his priority. She begins to feel stir crazy and wants to meet up with a local boy she likes. Her father has the task of keeping her safe at all costs, despite the fact she resents him for it.

Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet play the scientist roles, as well as Marion Cotillard. They are all at different locations and have their own story arcs. This allows for different aspects of the human condition to be explored, they range from bravery, desperation, to sacrifice. A smart way to explore how people might react once they are thrust into circumstances they have no prior experience of, or reference point to deal with. The behaviors are portrayed in a believable manner, something that helps to provide an eeriness to the film, that’s always present. In contrast to the scientific community, Jude Law plays a fear-mongering conspiracy theorist who becomes what some believe to be the new voice of truth. This is one of the clever parts of the film, and a very real commentary on how easily people’s already fragile sense of trust in the government’s likelihood, to be honest, can completely crumble. Information becomes a sort of weapon, that can also be a threat, as well as the virus. The rapid onset of symptoms does still make this feel like fiction, and the sheer number of people dying within days goes against any known scientific viral strains that stem from flu-like symptoms. If you want a thrill a minute then this is one to miss, as the narrative is slow and there’s little in the way of action. An interesting take on things, and one that keeps the human condition at the front of things, visa some solid, character-based acting.

SCi-fi Pulse’s Infection Factor: 7.9/10

 

93 Days

There’s an almost documentary feel to his brilliant piece of cinema. What it shows is that many films really are pot-boilers. The formula for many a film (this isn’t a criticism perse, just a way to explain why this film stands out and is a class apart) is hero meets problem, hero solves problem, etc. We all know it. The heroes in this story are not endowed with magic powers, or in search of am an object that will make everything alright. The “enemy” is among the most deadly things known to humanity. Ebola. The disease was so terrifying that it’s hard to see on screen. About as horrific as it gets. Suffice to say that if Ebola could be transmitted via the transmission method of the current Covid-19 pandemic, crippling life as we know it on the planet as we know it, well over half of the global population would be gone; probably, many more than half. Fortunately, that’s not the case. It doesn’t change how chilling the disease is and the ability of it to decimate life.

At the beginning of the film a diplomat, Patrick Sawyer (real-life first “index patient”), played by Keppy Ekpenyong-Bassey returns from Liberia and is shown to be feeling unwell. He is Liberian with American nationality. Doctor Adadevo, played by the wonderful Bimbo Akintola suspects a case of Ebola. The patient insists that he has malaria, and be treated as such. Eventually, her boss, Danny Glover’s Doctor Ohiaeri speaks with the State Health Department at Washington and explains; only after he is threatened with various politically motivated sanctions doe she takes this step. It’s here that we see the side of panic that infests established order. The clear undertone is that nobody wants to be blamed for this. Eventually, the diplomat is tested, and it’s confirmed that he has Ebola. This is where things start to take a dark turn. A day or so he is found in the room of his isolation room and is covered with blood. He has suffered severe hemorrhaging, a devastating symptom of the disease. The rapidity of onset and death is what really hits home.

Nurse Justina Echelonu, Zara Udofia Ejoh’s role is a newly qualified nurse who is working at the First Consultants Hospital, in Lagos, Nigeria. She is pregnant, with her first child. She is part of the care team who tries to look after Sawyer. Also on that team is Doctor Ada, portrayed by Somkele Iyamah-Idlahama. Despite their efforts to maintain safety precautions, there are transmissions of the disease. Soon, it’s threatening to become an outbreak, in a mega-city of around 21 million people. Once the Americans get wind of this, they get the ball rolling, and the seriousness of the potential is shown. Potentially, if not managed, Ebola could rip through humanity in a matter of days. This time, when you see the obligatory on-screen predictions, on a huge monitor that show a digital display — a simulation of a virus spreading — then you know this actually happened, as the film is based on actual events. It has an all too realistic chill to it. What adds to the sense of drama and realism is some seriously brilliant acting. Those persons depicted in the film aren’t characters, they’re real people that died; people with loved ones and a life. The sensitivity to capture this required is crucial. The cast doesn’t let anyone down and are a credit to a real human story. The emergency centre that infected victims have to stay in, some of which have their last days there, is comparatively diminished, by Western standards. Still, the Word Health Organisation Doctor, played by Alaistair Mackenzie gets on with things. Again, it’s the understated narrative of how life is valued according to the financial significance that comes through as heart-rendering; that, and the sheer range of human emotions on offer, from a very talented cast.

By the end of the movie, what emerges is a truly haunting story, of human endeavor. There’s self-sacrifice, desperation, and loss, and an enduring example of how when things get really bad, without people sticking together, things can get exponentially worse. In the film, there’s a great deal of fear, which is understandable. Workers are reluctant to do their jobs in areas that they worry may leave them open to contaminating Ebola. What’s required is someone to keep their efforts up. They are told that without them, there’s the potential for the disease to become much wider spread. The bravery they show surpasses anything in fiction; the “people power” element in that moment, when the appeal goes out to them and the very nature of fear is challenged, gives more hope than anything the big screen on offer. Even the collective feeling of the MCU’s Black Panther (2018) can’t do what this does, as it shows just how incredible and determined the people of Lagos and Nigeria were, how inspirational their actions were, and crucial in stopping what could have been a catastrophe. Given, the film isn’t a thrill a minute, and there aren’t any dramatic action sequences or big stunts. That’s not important. It’s a story and a tribute to those who gave their lives and were taken too early. If you only watch the film about a virus, then make it this. They are owed that, at the very least.

 

SCi-fi Pulse’s Infection Factor: 9.5/10

 

And there you have it. The overall winner and essential viewing is 93 Days. Not the pizza and popcorn type, but one that will offer some resolve to faith. It does what the other films can’t. It provides a truly tearful tale, in a manner befitting the reality of the current climate. That’s not to say that the other movies on offer are no good. They all have their moments, and for the sheer entertainment factor, there’s some scorching stuff. There’s Nineties nostalgia, a horror show on a shoe-string (by comparison) and some acting that reminds us all why we love stories and the people in them. We need them; perhaps right now more than ever.

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