How COVID-19 Changed Disaster Films

Coloured image of close up of coronavirus pathogen
 Orla Newstead

Pandemics seemed like ancient history or even like a fictional story before COVID-19 struck. In fact, we are so fascinated by natural biological disaster films that the cinematic space is arguably overcrowded with pandemic and epidemic movies. But how have pandemics been presented on screen since the lockdowns began? Orla Newstead discusses the ways pandemic movies have changed since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Together provides a very real snapshot of the struggles some were experiencing

It sounds morbid, I know, but I used to love a trashy disaster film. From Sharknado to 2012, these types of films have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. But when the pandemic struck the world at the end of 2019, it felt as though we were moving into one ourselves. Quickly, the death toll began to rise and peoples’ interest in disaster films began to pique.

Perhaps the most famous pandemic films that audiences are familiar with are Outbreak (1995) starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman and the star-studded Contagion (2011). Outbreak is possibly the most chaotic pandemic film I have ever seen—from helicopters to bombings, it is easy to see why that film succeeded in the box office, grossing over $189,000,000 worldwide. Whilst Contagion is arguably a more realistic view of what happened during COVID-19 it still lacks the human touch that seems to have been ignored in pandemic films that predate COVID-19.

Fast forward to 2021, we are graced with two very poignant and emotional television films about COVID-19 which elegantly tug at the audiences’ heartstrings. In Together, we are introduced to an unhappy couple and their son, navigating their difficult relationship in the midst of a lockdown. Together provides a very real snapshot of the struggles some were experiencing during this time: from relationship troubles to a lonely lockdown Christmas, and even to losing a loved one to the virus. In addition to this film, Jodie Comer starred in the film Help, which focused on the perspective of a care home worker and all of the complications care homes faced, such as a lack of PPE.

They communicated a political message to audiences by breaking the fourth wall

One thing that makes these two more recent films better, in my opinion, is that they expose and the human emotion element of a pandemic. They focus on the personal turmoil that all people faced, be it people on the front line or regular people working and staying at home. Even the titles of these films highlight this, as Together and Help remind us of the need we had to literally come together and help people in an unprecedented time of sacrifice.

Despite my opinion that these two films are better, the statistics of Outbreak and Contagion at the box office beg to differ—they earned over $189 million and over $136 million respectively. Together and Help were not given a cinematic release and instead were shown on television (BBC and Channel 4) because they were not designed to rake in money and receive a red carpet premiere. Instead they communicated a political message to audiences by breaking the fourth wall.

Together and Help are films that provide a snapshot of that turbulent period of time in our history, a time that we are still working our way through. They work almost like a time capsule: the films will always serve as a reminder to appreciate the front line workers in our NHS, and to remember those who tragically lost their lives to COVID-19.  

Orla Newstead

Featured image courtesy of Alachua County via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

First in article video courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment via youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

Second in article video courtesy of Bleecker Street via youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

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