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.
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
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
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?
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
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.