In light of the realities of the COVID-19 lockdown, Peter Jukes explores why our myths of pandemics and alien invasions tell us more about our sorry selves.
Recent reflections on post-apocalypse and zombie movies like 28 Days Later have raised a question bugging me after a month of symptomatic COVID-19 isolation and exhausting all my video-on-demand online streaming accounts.
Why does every apocalyptic invasion or infection scenario get humanity so horribly wrong?
First released in 2003, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s film has many echoes of the reality I experience every day now walking the streets of London’s Bankside in April 2020.
While Cillian Murphy crossed an abandoned Westminster Bridge, wandered around alone through Piccadilly Circus and a rubbish-strewn Horseguards Parade, my neighbourhood is equally eerie and uncanny. But fairly rubbish free. There are no overturned buses or posters of the dead and missing. I used to be enthralled by those sequences of an empty London, wondering if they’d been done through early morning film or CGI. But no longer.
Abandoned cities bore me. I’ve had enough of them. The reality is bland and familiar.
I’d been fascinated by the ruin and abandonment of my home town since I first saw The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) as a kid. In Val Guest’s classic, set mainly in the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Express with the legendary editor Arthur Christiansen playing himself, the Earth had been shifted out of its orbit and towards a fiery demise closer to the sun by the accidental simultaneous detonation of two nuclear tests by the USSR and the US. But it wasn’t the geopolitics that impressed me, compared to the transcendence and transformation of destruction: the matte paintings showing the Thames dried up to a trickle under Tower Bridge. That’s the thing about catastrophes, they change your perspective and open your eyes. As things fall apart, structures become clear. That why Apocalypses are so appealing. In ancient Greek it means ‘tearing the veil’.
Around the same time, aged 10, I was inspired by the front page image of a National Geographic magazine, of the whole earth dying through pollution, to write my first poem. It ended with the thought:
But we cannot contradict God/Who holds the pod/Of life and plants it again/And we all feel the pain/Looking on another earth/Which has long forgotten its mirth/That dies as so many do/When the once newly shodden shoe/Rusts and decays once more
Morbid or what? My primary school teachers and headmaster loved it and I had to read it to a morning assembly. As a father now I’d be taking that 10-year-old to see a child psychologist. But I remember exactly the moment in my bedroom when the words came to me. I wasn’t depressed or anxious, I was excited as if I’d woken up and a winter storm had blanketed north London in thick snow.
And that’s the first thing every Zombie Apocalypse movie gets wrong – they’re too exciting.
As we now know, the reality of lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic is the opposite of entertaining. The cinemas, clubs, concert halls and theatres are all shuttered. As for filmic moments, there’s really very little immediate drama in hundreds of people face-down, intubated and sedated. In simplistic film terms, it’s going to be hard to empathise let alone recognise any of the leading medical heroes under those painful masks and alienating protective gloves and aprons. The terrible reality is that the bigger tragedy is unfolding silently, in the care homes and quiet cul de sacs where the world doesn’t end with a bang or even a whimper. Just a cessation of breath. A suspension of time.
Meanwhile, there is no great inrush of nature to replace the lost life: forests growing out of asphalt and concrete or the Statue of Liberty buried in sand. In Southwark, the pigeons are taking over the streets but seem lost and needy. The seagulls are more raucous and sound noisier than the City Airport jets. But it’s hardly The Birds. You can hear that child-like cry of foxes during the day as well as at night, but it’s no I Am Legend.
No one predicted, and no one probably ever could, the dull apocalypse: this quiet desperation and terrible monotony.
The Common Enemy
The second thing these movies get wrong is their enemies. Zombie and apocalypse movies are always projections of the ‘other’ and tell you more about the current social paranoia than any unforeseen calamity or invader.
In 28 Days Later the virus that turns everyone mad is a flesh-eating monster called ‘Rage’ (subtle, eh?). The opening sequence, showing animal rights activists breaking into a research institute and releasing chimps who have been deliberately infected, dates the movie as surely as Carbon-14. Not that everyone has moved on. Some conspiracy theorists today believe that Sars-Cov-2 was developed by the Chinese to destroy liberty and capitalism. If only… Then, at least, we’d have an enemy who knows what they were doing.
I don’t think the Coronavirus has a clue. In my experience, it just kind of rattled around, in my throat, my eyeballs and my gut, coming and going with sporadic waves of fevers. I’m frankly not that impressed by its character or motivation, just grateful it never got to my chest.
So what kind of life form makes a good enemy and alien invader? Viruses are problematic because they include things as boring as warts, and there’s still debate about whether, since they require RNA from host cells to replicate, they are actually alive.
To be fair to the movies of my youth, they reflected this uncertain status between life/replication, the organic and inorganic when it came to threats. In Ridley Scott’s first Alien (1979), the parasitic enemy that laid its eggs in humans was never entirely visible, half-mechanical, half a meaty surrealist’s nightmare with acid for blood. In John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) the parasite worked at a cellular level, happy to invade your body bit by bit and impersonate people, dogs and even spiders in its attempts to survive. In the Terminator franchise, a great precursor for the Matrix trilogy, the threat was even more tech-centred: a machine posing as a human working on a mission to destroy humanity on behalf of the internet.
So what do those landmark modern apocalypses tell you about our fears and imaginary opponents? Located in outer space, inner space or cyberspace, they are ruthless, remorseless, logical. Like Mark Zuckerberg or Peter Thiel, they display, at the very least, the beginnings of consciousness, focused activity and a plan.
Where’s your plan, Coronavirus? Self-replication really won’t cut it at the box office.
The Common Good
If the alien invaders actually say more about our good selves at some visceral or physical level, the way humans behave in the zombie apocalypse genre is far less illuminating.
The baseline for all these global imaginations of a common alien enemy is that they are supposed to weld us into a sense of common humanity. HG Wells’ original War of the Worlds is actually a treatise on the need for global government (in this case the bugs are on our side). Stephen Spielberg’s remake in 2003 is filled with ironic visual and verbal references to 9/11. Tom Cruise is covered by grey dust from vapourised bodies of the aliens’ victims and his daughter Dakota Fanning asks if the aliens are “terrorists”.
As always, the real story is not the alien enemies, but ourselves. Culminating in the long-running the Walking Dead television series, zombie movie series use the brute but stupid enemy as a backdrop to what’s really happening: the stupid and brutal behaviour of people. The so-called ‘Father of the Zombie Film’, George Romero, started this ironic twist by setting the violence in the bleak deserts of the US shopping mall.
In zombie movies there are really only two moral dilemmas. One is a replay of the old libertarian question from the Wild West: can I kill this person if I find a good excuse? The update is the obsession of baby boomers and their ageing parents: is it okay to kill a loved one if they don’t seem human anymore?
So we haven’t really moved on much from Thomas Hobbes in 1651, who suggested that, without strong controls, humans would revert back to a life “nasty, brutish and short”. This pessimism about human reactions to a pandemic even vitiates the otherwise stunningly prescient Stephen Soderberg movie Contagion (2011) which shows the US quickly breaking down, with violent lootings, robbery and arson; rubbish piling up in the streets; armed men prowling the suburbs.
So far, none of this has happened with the Coronavirus. The closest we’ve got in the UK is panic-buying of toilet paper, a rowdy pub in Scotland and too many people going to the park. Even if we do get to Mad Max territory, we’ll need the prequel to include the clapping for NHS heroes moments, the stairwell ascent of Everest and the stay-at-home marathon.
I personally think the best movies made about the 2020 lockdown and pandemic will start with some lovely retired couple played by Meryl Street and Clint Eastwood. They probably have a bit of history, but are happy now, and they’re given a special 40th wedding anniversary present by their adoring and wealthy kids: a three-month holiday on a cruise ship. The date is December 2019.
Either that or the films will be domestic rather than epic, a murder mystery about a co-habiting couple actually having to live together and one finds that the other starts a clandestine affair on Zoom with a YouTube fitness trainer.
But maybe that’s not the point. The reality of those disaster, alien invasion and zombie movies is that they were never really designed to be a guidebook for how to react. Quite the opposite. They take us down a dark, imaginative path so that, when it really comes along, we don’t go there. They project a future that cannot happen because, once projected, it is the future we’re bound to avoid.