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Forget Darth Vader, Science Fiction’s Greatest Villain Has Always Been the Pandemic

‘Contagion’ may be the most relatable pandemic movie right now, but it’s hardly the first

“The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.”

That quote, written by Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg, appears at the beginning of the 1995 thriller Outbreak, a movie about stopping a deadly virus before it becomes a pandemic. To quote numbers you’ve possibly heard since the arrival of coronavirus in America, in 1918, the Spanish Flu claimed 50 million lives across the globe, and during the Middle Ages, the black plague may have claimed up to 200 million lives. Rivaled only by the ravages of war, the various plagues and pandemics throughout human history have caused incomprehensible devastation, which is why stories of such horror have found their way into every genre and every medium of human storytelling.

Given their nature, tales of destructive pandemics have lent themselves naturally to themes of drama, horror and even the occasional satire, but no other genre has pandemics written into their very DNA quite like science fiction. The pairing is logical — given the biological nature of pandemics, it makes perfect sense that science fiction would use it as a source of inspiration, and this holds true all the way back to the origins of sci-fi.

The claim to being the very first science-fiction story is debatable, but most agree that science fiction as we know it began with Mary Shelley when she published Frankenstein in 1818 and The Last Man in 1826. Frankenstein included the sci-fi staple of futuristic science, yet The Last Man is considered to be the first work of post-apocalyptic fiction, a common subgenre of sci-fi. Beginning in the year 2073, The Last Man tells the story of humankind’s gradual extinction at the hands of a deadly plague, leaving just one man alone on Earth in the year 2100. 

Other works of science fiction would echo Shelley’s sweeping story over the next two centuries, including The Death of Grass, a 1956 novel by John Christopher, where a virus kills off all the world’s grass, rice and wheat, causing humankind to slip into anarchy. Similarly, Stephen King’s 800-page epic The Stand uses elements of sci-fi, horror and fantasy to tell the story of a deadly flu — nicknamed Captain Trips — that decimates humankind, slowly giving way to a new, post-apocalyptic order. In light of the coronavirus spread, in fact, there’s been much talk about chapter eight of King’s book, which chronicles how a virus spreads.

One of the most popular types of pandemic stories occurs where science fiction and horror overlap: zombie films. Though the zombie legend was born out of Haitian folklore and voodoo, Zombie Cinema author Ian Olney explains that the genre began to be infused with science-fiction elements starting with the novel I Am Legend in 1954. The book, written by Richard Matheson, told the story of Robert Neville, the only survivor of a pandemic that wiped out most of humankind and turned everyone else remaining into ravenous zombie/vampire-like creatures. The book was so influential that a total of three films have been adapted from it, including Will Smith’s movie of the same title, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and 1971’s The Omega Man with Charlton Heston.

While George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead — which was partially inspired by I Am Legend — is widely considered the birth of the modern zombie film, Romero chose not to explain the cause of his zombie epidemic. As Zombies on Film author Ozzy Inguanzo explains, “Romero was more focused on his sobering message about the disintegration of society. The story was about the living, not the dead.” Many of the films Romero inspired, though, would include the plot device of a pandemic as a scientific — rather than mystical — means of creating zombies. To offer some examples, The Walking Dead’s zombies were brought about by the “Wildfire Virus,” the zombies in World War Z originated from the “Solanum Virus” and 28 Days Later’s post-apocalyptic England was brought about due to the — sigh — “Rage Virus.”

The Rage Virus in 28 Days Later is a good example of another recurring element in many pandemic films: the idea that the virus causing the pandemic was originally manmade. In its case, the story was that Cambridge researchers were originally working on anger inhibitors and to test them out, they first had to infect chimps with a virulent form of rage. Unfortunately, an animal liberation group releases one of the chimps, who spreads the Rage Virus across England. Apes and monkeys also seem to be a popular aspect of this plot, in one form or another: In 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis plays a character who time travels from 2035 to 1996 to stop a group of terrorists from releasing a virus in Philadelphia. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the “Simian Flu” begins as an Alzheimer’s treatment that makes apes hyper-intelligent, but humans gravely ill. The movie ends with a chilling sequence showing how a virus can spread across the world, foreshadowing what we’re seeing now with the coronavirus. By the time of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which takes place a decade later, humankind has been decimated by the effects of Simian Flu.

Then there are pandemic films about containing a breakout, where people and/or governments must stop the spread of the virus before it destroys us. In a way, 28 Days Later and its follow up 28 Weeks Later fall into this category, as the Rage Virus had been mostly contained to Britain. Another example is the 1973 film The Crazies, in which a military plane carrying a bioweapon crashes in a small Pennsylvania town, spreading a virus that kills some and makes others homicidal.

But despite their differences, one thing that almost every one of these films shares is the fact that the pandemic isn’t the central story. As David A. Kirby, a lecturer on science communication studies, points out, “What The Crazies and zombie films are doing is using a virus to create monsters, whereas in films like Outbreak and Contagion, the virus is the monster.” Kirby adds that films that are simply about the virus itself often but not always introduce a more scientific angle into their story with the aid of scientific advisors, which is the topic of his book, Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema.

Kirby explains that scientists have been involved with motion pictures pretty much since the birth of the technology, as guys like Thomas Edison would showcase short films of bacteria in nickelodeons in the early 20th century. This relationship between films and science would be a consistent practice throughout movie history, which Kirby claims happened mostly because Americans have always wanted some sense of realism to what they’re seeing on screen. “For the 1929 film Woman in the Moon, director Fritz Lang brought on a lot of scientists, and for 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick consulted with scientists to make a realistic space movie,” Kirby says.

On the subject of pandemics in particular, Kirby says the interest in films about microbiology can be traced back to a highly influential book from 1926 called Microbe Hunters. “Microbe Hunters is a book about scientists like Louis Pasteur, Paul Ehrlich and Walter Reed, which became a huge hit, giving rise to a lot of films in the 1930s about microbiologists.” Kirby cites Arrowsmith, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and Green Light in particular, all of which are films about preventing the spread of disease in some form or another. Additionally, there’s 1939’s Pacific Liner, where a man infected with cholera is spreading his illness aboard a ship, meaning a doctor onboard must quarantine him and prevent a spread to San Francisco, where the ship is headed. And in 1950 there was The Killer That Stalked New York and Panic in the Streets, both of which were about stopping an infectious virus in a major city.

Microbiology would receive another major resurgence with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which was published as a book in 1969 and then made into a movie released in 1971, both of which ended up being massive hits.

Crichton himself was trained as a doctor, and as such, his science-fiction books always made efforts to be as realistic as possible (considering the topics included stuff like living dinosaur parks, at least). The Andromeda Strain was his first smash, and tells the story of a NASA probe that crash lands in a small town in Arizona, killing most of the town’s inhabitants. As the story progresses, it’s discovered that an alien rock has been collected by the probe and a team of doctors — including microbiologists — must study the deadly alien life form on the rock and figure out how to destroy it. Meanwhile, the remnants of the virus remain in the air above the Arizona town, threatening to spread across the globe. The influence of The Andromeda Strain is hard to measure, but to offer up some examples, the virus in The Walking Dead is named for the secret base in the book/movie: “Wildfire.” Additionally, the book made Crichton a bestseller and ushered in a new breed of heavily scientific “techno-thrillers.”

The Andromeda Strain was focused on an alien threat to humankind, but future films about containing pandemics would address more terrestrial threats, especially the deadly Ebola virus. Before getting to Ebola, though, it’s worth mentioning the lack of films discussing the AIDS pandemic. While this would eventually change in the 1990s, during the 1980s, AIDS was largely ignored on film as it faced the prejudice of being considered a “gay disease” only, and thus, not a concern for the powers-that-be in Hollywood or D.C. By the time Hollywood finally did come around in the 1990s, the virus had already broken free and films like Philadelphia and Longtime Companion were entirely about acceptance, not containment.

As for Ebola, despite the first outbreak occurring in Africa in 1976, the 1994 book The Hot Zone would help to propel the disease to a more national stage in the U.S. Not technically science fiction, the story of the containment of the Ebola virus did read like something from the very best of thriller writers. Not only did it inspire a new wave of interest in microbiology, in 1999, American Scientist named it one of the “100 or so books that shaped a century of science.” In fact, Stephen King himself said that The Hot Zone was “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.

The 1995 film Outbreak was directly inspired by The Hot Zone and the Ebola virus, though it departed far from its source material. Focusing on the fictional “Motaba Virus,” the story follows Dustin Hoffman as a virologist trying to stop the virus from spreading in a small California town via an infected monkey from Zaire. 

Kirby says the film has an admirable degree of realism for an action thriller, but its more fantastic elements may have undermined its deeper scientific truths. Still, Kirby explains that this is all par for the course: “I talk about it as sort of a ‘deal with the Hollywood devil,’ in that no matter how much realism is put in a movie, it’s still a movie.” In other words, things will inevitably be sensationalized and abbreviated for time. Notably, given our present condition with coronavirus, cures and vaccines always arrive much faster in the movies than they do in real life.

Outbreak was successful, but it wasn’t quite a blockbuster. And so, for the next 17 years, viral outbreak movies would largely be confined to the small screen, often in reaction to a passing news item — e.g., TV movies like Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, Contagious, Smallpox 2002 and Quarantine

The next major Hollywood film about a viral outbreak, in fact, would be 2011’s Contagion, which, if you watch it, has frightening parallels to our present situation. For one, the pandemic begins in China, just like the coronavirus, and it spreads through direct contact, reaching the U.S. mainland via Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, who is returning from a business trip in Hong Kong. There’s also talk of quarantine and “social distancing.” Additionally, much like Alex Jones and Jim Bakker, who have tried to sell phony cures to an unwitting public, in Contagion, Jude Law plays the host of an InfoWars-type show peddling false remedies. The movie ends with the reveal of the virus’ origins, which was tracked backwards from Paltrow’s character to a chef butchering pigs. As it turns out, that pig had been infected by a bat in China, similar to how the coronavirus is believed to have originated.

The downright spooky similarities in Contagion may make a viewer ask, “How did they know???” Kirby, however, explains that the answer is clear: “People like to say these movies are prescient, but they aren’t. These films had scientists on them who understood the threats and the likelihood of how all of these things would take place. That’s not prescience, it’s understanding what can really happen.” 

If anything, many scientists join these movies with a deliberate motive, such as with 1984’s WarGames. Obviously, that film isn’t about a pandemic, but it was a heavily researched story about hacking and the security of our nuclear weapons, and as I chronicled in my oral history of the subject, it would directly lead to America’s first legislation on cybersecurity. As such, Kirby says that there began a phenomenon he calls “The WarGames Effect,” where scientists would be advising on films not just to add realism, but as a platform to communicate scientific causes.

For Jurassic Park, the notion of birds being descended from dinosaurs was pushed on the mainstream public for the first time and thanks to the film’s success, that idea is now widely accepted. For films about nuclear weapons, environmental causes and pandemics, scientists would use the movies for a more deliberate impact: Rather than just inform the public, they were hoping to scare them into action. In his book, Kirby quotes an interview from Health magazine with virologist Peter Jahrling, who consulted on Outbreak:

“‘If the film has a ring of truth to it, people will walk out thinking, Jesus, that story may have been fiction, but it could happen, couldn’t it? But if it’s clearly just science fiction, they’ll write it off like the latest Sylvester Stallone movie.’ Which would be too bad, says Jahrling, because only a fired-up public will favor spending research dollars on vaccines and other precautions against an obscure killer virus before it goes global, not after.”

Reading that line in these times, one cannot help but think of coronavirus. In particular, a story by NBC News comes to mind where scientists admitted that they were close to a vaccine to coronavirus years ago, but the funding dried up. “We tried like heck to see if we could get investors or grants to move this into the clinic, but we just couldn’t generate much interest,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital. This was back in 2016, which NBC points out was 10 years after SARS, and so, the threat just didn’t seem real enough.

Given that, it makes one wonder if the scientists and filmmakers working on Contagion didn’t yell loudly enough. Or even more likely, since it was released in 2011, if our short-attention spans and the self-serving goals of our elected representatives have caught up with us, producing what have now become devastating results. 

Either way, here’s hoping the next well-informed movie warning gets taken more seriously.