Call it morbidity, curiosity, or the quest for certainty during volatile and uncertain times but ever since the pandemic hit us over the head, I have been both fascinated and appalled with the world around me while grappling with everything as it unfolds in slow motion and in repeat mode. I was not only interested in the psychological and emotional effects and disturbances that the pandemic has brought upon all our lives, but I wanted to immerse myself in movies and series that would reignite those flames and feelings to better understand and come to terms with them.
With 20/20 pandemic hindsight, I re-watched a handful of thematically linked and relevant movies like Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), while also watching, for the first time, previous imaginings of the havoc that pandemics could potentially wreak as in the middling and overdone movie Outbreak (1995) by Wolfgang Petersen as well as the seemingly far-fetched but overall spot-on film noir Panic in the Streets (1950) by Elia Kazan.
Of these three movies, the best researched and imagined one is Contagion, and it was quite scary, eerie, and prescient at various times since it was alluding to the influence of the Internet and the presence of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. Although I generally liked the film, I was even more impressed the second time around and could not help thinking that the whole situation could have and should have been handled differently and better by all the authorities from the get-go.
I was quite disappointed with Outbreak as it had various interesting bits regarding forced lockdown and confinement but then was constantly driven by the need to turn dramatic events into an average and inane action film. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the film noir Panic in the Streets in which a doctor, played by Richard Widmark, was on the hunt for a killer infected with a highly contagious pneumonic plague. The depiction of panic and of time running out to contain the virus and to get everyone vaccinated in time would have not resonated well with audiences back then or even a couple of years back but with what we know now, it is quite shockingly accurate and congruent with our times and current experiences.
The list could go on much longer, but I want to add a few more movies as well. I was curious to watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), the second version by Philip Kaufman, and its sense of paranoia and growing infection was well-captured, whereas the focus was more on conspiracy theories, which I found slightly deplorable in this case.
On the contrary, The Happening (2008) by the eminently watchable but equally frustrating filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan would have benefited from a shot of conspiracy theory but instead opted for a nature revenge story. Yet, as I viewed this movie most recently for the first time, as nature appears to be taking revenge on us or is simply reacting to negative karma alongside ignorance and denial that we have been accumulating over the past years and decades, it has gained some esteem in my eyes. Yet there are absolutely no excuses for the atrocious acting and some unfortunate, bad, and inexcusable choices in terms of writing and directing.
Finally, the critically panned Passengers (2016) by Morten Tyldum tended out to be an interesting treat, and despite its flaws, it is seriously underrated and unfairly maligned. People were hung up on and mired and blinded by gender issues and politics and failed to see, understand, or empathize with the vast level of loneliness that the (human) characters must have experienced as they were floating idly through space for the remainder of their lives. But the pandemic with its penchant for lockdowns, breakdowns, and ample supply of downtime has now given a taste of what it is like to be metaphorically an island onto oneself, and, in many cases, this has come with an overall lack of human touch and contact.
Moving on to various series, a few good-to-great series come to mind, including techno-thrillers that deal with potential threats and nightmare scenarios from different levels and situations. The revolutionary, anarchist Mr. Robot started off interesting and had vibrance but then became a convoluted and confusing mess to me, and I lost interest after a while. Black Mirror was great but when we needed it most during the pandemic, it was not forthcoming whatsoever with the excuse that times are weirder than anything they could possibly depict in the show. That may be true but psychologically speaking, it would have been a source of comfort and solace to have these issues addressed in this stunning and well-made series.
Finally, I quite enjoyed the first season of the German biotech thriller Biohackers, and it fits in with the innovative use of genetic technology and the combat against this dreadful virus. I thought it also depicted quite well both the benefits as well as potential threats and drawbacks of this type of technology but then the sudden, unexpected, and implausible shift in the second season undid most of the good parts of the first season and leaves me now with only a mildly enthused flavor in my mouth.
The other series I was curious about was Stephen King’s The Stand and I opted for the original mini-series version of the 70s instead of the more recent remake. It started off very well and had everything going for it in terms of what is currently occurring across the world but then it was too deeply imbued with religious symbolism, which ended up being a turn-off for me. It was not just because of religious themes, which I would have welcomed if it had been done in a more considerate and sensible manner, but in this case, it ended up being only slighter better than Petersen’s mediocre tackling of the virus.
And then, there were The Leftovers, the absolute highlight of pandemic binge-watching and, in my view, one of the best series of all time. In fact, no movie or program has depicted the current turmoil, uncertainly and pure madness as this series has, and it was made a handful of years before any of these events caught us off-guard. Like certain parts and premonitions of The Simpsons that manage to somehow portray the future accurately, which some claim to be the result of either psychic phenomena or due to time travel, but which could simply be the outcome of a creatively charged, sensitive, and perceptive imagination.
The premise is simple but mysterious: On October 14, two percent of the world population inexplicably and haphazardly disappears into thin air. It happens within a blink and apparently without rhyme or reason. The opening minutes are some of the emotionally most harrowing and disturbing moments I have ever seen. This untenable situation creates fear and panic, and the focus is on how a town in New York handles and deals with this unprecedented situation.
But what makes this series so moving and what resonated with me on profound levels was not the mystery itself, which may or may not be left unsolved, but it was all about those who are left behind, the leftovers of the great disappearance. Why were they spared? Was this a type of divine punishment or reward? Was it a case of the great rapture? And is the rapture a reward or rather a form of punishment, or both or neither?
This hypothetical situation gives rise to a number of profound philosophical speculations and ruminations. In times of doubt and crisis, each person reacts differently. Some embrace religion more firmly and believe that it may be God’s hand that is protecting some, lifting others, and letting others down. In the series, a priest tries his best to expose the sins of those who were taken to calm his own guilty conscience of being leftover or left behind.
At the same time, some create their own religion, which is best and most memorably established with the creepy sect of the Guilty Remnants. It is not always clear what they stand for, but they are easily recognized and recognizable by the following characteristics, they are all dressed in white clothing, they never speak as they strictly follow a vow of silence, and they chain smoke. Yes, they smoke one cigarette after another. Why? Who knows?
And yet, they try to convert others. They stage protests and demonstrations, and they are ubiquitous. Their protests are “peaceful” as they block roads, entries, and buildings as well as funerals, and they hold up provocative signs. They purposely and effectively tempt and provoke others, grieved and grieving members of the community by holding up signs that diminish, dismiss, and even utterly negate their pain and suffering. And yet, many of them, through their persistence and nihilistic messages in a seemingly cold and uncaring world manage to recruit and gain more and more followers.
Then there are those who have gone insane. Whether it is the priest who perceives messages from the other world and who believes to have met and spoken to an incarnation of God or whether it is the ex-police commissioner who hears voices telling him to go to Australia and engage in tribal dances while singing aboriginal songs to avert the apocalypse, the lines between reason and irrationality, reality and imagination and sanity and insanity become quite blurry.
Like in real life, miracles happen, and then, they do not happen. Some become terrorists and are ready to do anything to get their message across, but it is not always clear what they say or want, except for the end result of creating chaos, anarchy, and instability. Sounds familiar?
Moreover, in The Leftovers, there are those who claim to be prophets, and they seem to be false, while there is a town that is apparently spared from disgrace and departures, but it is cordoned off and protected from any outsiders and outside influences. Anyone to come and visit must have a wristband to show to gain entry as this small and previously insignificant town has become the emblem of the Holy Land, a territory that is protected, and spared by God. And then, there are also resurrections.
And all that I have expressed here is merely and barely the tip of the iceberg. There is sheer craziness and outright madness alternating from weird, bizarre, funny to touching, moving, and deeply personal, often changing within instants and moments. It is upheld and held together by an outstanding score by Max Richter that will haunt you for time to come.
And we are faced with various existential questions and dilemmas of the human condition that simply cannot have neat and satisfying answers. Why are some people spared of disease and death, while others are not? The pandemic has attacked some more than others, has given some people a mild version while others have been crippled by it, and many have died as a result. Then, there are those who refuse to be vaccinated and claim that it is a worldwide conspiracy.
The question also remains, ever since life started to exist on this planet, and after the Big Bang or since the expulsion of Adam and Eve, what happens after we die? Where do we go and are we to return in one way or another? Do we merely stop existing like a blown-out candle or is our energy transformed? What happens to the smoke and where does it go? What are we and why are we here and where do we come from and where do we go?
I am not saying that The Leftovers has the answers to all or any of these questions. In fact, I would say that it raises them and highlights and emphasizes them. It makes you think, and it makes you cry while making you scratch your head in bewilderment. The series carefully treads and walks a tightrope connecting the mundane with the magical, the ordinary with the miraculous, the beautiful with the ugly, and that non-binary bridge between the shores of sanity and madness. If there is one program you would want to watch during these wild, crazy, and unpredictable times of the pandemic, this is the one to put on your immediate watchlist.