For those who have long observed the epochal change that we are caught within, one question looms large: what will it take to wake people up? The answer, it seems, is a pandemic. “Succeeding” where the climate crisis and the acceleration of global inequality have not, COVID-19 has, for scores of apolitical citizens, highlighted the modern world-system’s fragility. But despite a plunging stock market and empty supermarket shelves, the usual suspects have responded with indifference to facts. Indeed, the callousness of the Senate going into recess for the second time during the outbreak, insurance companies planning to profit from the emergency, and grifters hoarding garages full of hand sanitizer has felt both tragically predictable and vaguely unreal.
Unreality, in fact, has been molding us for this very moment. It’s a cliche at this point to compare the unfolding situation to an overwrought disaster movie, replete with plunging stocks, scenes of robots roaming deserted streets, and mask-clad soldiers mobilizing en masse. For many people, however, one of the clearest memories of this particular inflection point will literally be the movie version. Over the past month, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film Contagion hit #9 on iTunes’s top 100 rental list, while Outbreak currently sits at #84. The appeal of watching Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow act out our real-life nightmare is summed up nicely in a recent Washington Post article, which describes playwright Chas Libretto watching the film to “get an idea of how bad things could possibly get, but also to see humans persevere in the face of catastrophe.” Libretto muses, “It did make me feel a little better just because the disease they face is so much worse than the one we’re facing.”
Libretto’s catharsis reminds us of the fundamental difference between a movie like Contagion and, say, Stephen King’s The Stand, whose all-consuming plague ends society as we know it. Unlike their postapocalyptic cousins, films like Contagion and Outbreak offer something closer to semipocalypse, in which a lot of people die (even more than in “real life”) but civilization as we know it endures. Popular because of its essential conservatism, or conservative because of its popular ambition, semipocalypse has long shaped the prevailing response to climatic and economic emergencies. In coming days, we can expect public and private actors alike to continue obeying its century-old narrative demands: reassure civilization’s perseverant avatars, while shrugging off the rest as regrettable losses. In other words, we’re all Matt Damon now.
The ideology of semipocalypse has its roots in the genre’s initial Victorian wave. At the cusp of the century, Dracula (1897) and War of the Worlds (1898) offered the most influential antecedents of the spectacular blockbusters that would captivate 20th century audiences. In Dracula, a centuries-old Un-Dead Transylvanian plots to infiltrate London’s “teeming millions” and “create an ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless”; in War of the Worlds, the Martians descend from the “older worlds of space” to escape their planet’s exhaustion, at the expense of Earth’s “inferior animals.” Produced on a wave of fin de siecle anxiety about social and imperial decline, both texts thus envisioned modernity teetering in the face of ancient monsters. But unlike the contemporaneous After London, which follows the emergence of nomadic society amidst the ruins of civilization, both Dracula and War of the Worlds ultimately leave the world-system (and Britain’s domination, in particular) intact, even improved.
As scholar Nicholas Daly points out, such fantasies use impending cataclysm as a pretext for glorifying the rise of the “professional middle class,” the doctors, scientists, and solicitors from which Dracula and War of the Worlds draw their heroes. (In the latter case, scientists emerge from interplanetary conflict with increased cache, as their expertise enables understanding of the Martians’ biology and weaponry.) Fending off a pandemic of vampirism or an alien invasion with their professional expertise, such protagonists must wade through an onslaught of collateral damage, secondary characters whose misfortunes raise the stakes for our heroes. Most of these poor souls are nameless extras—the Transylvanian villagers whose babies are literally stolen and eaten by the King Vampire, or the hordes of panicking English who flee a Martian-ravaged London on foot—but, canny storytellers that they are, both Bram Stoker and H.G. Wells make sure to give prominence to at least one member of the damned. Their influential texts thus inaugurated semipocalypse’s flourishing roster of expendables.
Hence, Lucy Westenra starts out Dracula as one of the protagonists, before Dracula infects her almost immediately upon arriving in England. One-time rivals for Lucy’s affections, Dr. Seward and Lord Godalming, are forced to stake Lucy in her tomb and mournfully resign her to eternal slumber. By the novel’s happy end, however, protagonist Jonathan Harker cheerfully reports that his pals are now “happily married,” and can thus look back on the whole ordeal “without despair.” Lucy’s (un)death is expunged from the record. Meanwhile, an anguished curate spends much of War of the Worlds as the nameless scientist-narrator’s traveling companion, before the latter knocks him unconscious and leaves him to the Martians’ systematic bloodsucking. (That two of the fin de siecle’s most popular novels feature exsanguinating monsters deserves an essay in itself.) If Lucy’s suitors forget about her with remarkable alacrity, Wells’ narrator is positively George Costanza-esque about his companion’s demise and his own role in it: “I saw it simply as a thing done, a memory infinitely disagreeable but without the quality of remorse.”
Indeed, Lucy and the curate merit scant mention after their untimely deaths, or, in Lucy’s case, their return to “normal” death. To the contrary, Stoker and Wells intimate that physical and moral weaknesses make the victim’s fate inevitable, maybe even deserved. An inveterate flirt, Lucy also suffers from a bad case of sleepwalking, which renders her vulnerable to Dracula’s seductive spell. For his part, Wells’ curate is portrayed as an effete hysteric, whose babbling about the “day of the Lord” prompts the muscularly Christian narrator to exclaim, “Be a man!” In this sense, Lucy and the curate stand in for the populations of expendables in the novels’ backgrounds: the Transylvanian victims of Dracula, cast as superstitious primitives early on; the hordes of “workmen” and “street outcast(s)” encountered by the brother of The War of the Worlds’ narrator, one of whom bites the former as payback for rescue from an oncoming wagon. Minorities, weak-willed women, womanly men, and the working class rabble all experience dreadful-but-unavoidable misery, which ultimately casts into relief the heroes’ grit and superior genes. Where one of Christendom’s custodians threatens to lapse into life-threatening weakness, as in the case of the perpetually cowed Jonathan Harker, their arc necessitates a climactic display of courage. Having begun the novel as Dracula’s feminized prisoner, Jonathan ends it by cutting off his captor’s head.
To be sure, neither Stoker nor Wells leave their principal cast entirely unscathed. Both Harker and War of the World’s narrator show signs of trauma at the novel’s end, with the former brooding over “vivid and terrible memories” and the latter regarding his fellow survivors as “phantasms in a dead city.” Still, the point of both novels is to leave us relieved at the main characters’ comparative happiness, and the broader social stability for which such happiness acts as a synecdoche. Dracula and War of the Worlds thus kicked off a tradition of elite saviors sucking up the audience’s empathy, while the second fiddles in the background elicit everything from momentary sympathy to outright contempt. We can thank Lucy Westenra and the unmanly curate for Independence Day’s doomed hedonists, Armageddon’s foodstand owners, The Day After Tomorrow’s gawking Angelenos, 2012’s poorly driving old ladies, A Quiet Place’s not-quiet old man, and Avengers: Infinity War’s billions of annihilated citizens, whose offscreen extinction warrants nary a tenderly staged embrace. (Not content with destroying half of humanity, the Avengers screenwriters then send Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye on a righteous killing spree of random Mexican and Japanese criminals, a racist rampage that’s framed as a superhero’s version of grief therapy).
In other words, the global pileup of corpses might provoke pontification about the “commonweal of mankind,” as it does for The War of the World’s narrator, but the audience’s empathy fundamentally remains with the protagonists and the way of life they stoically uphold. Sometimes the supporting cast offers help at a critical moment, but then they recede into the background, returning to their rightful place. When Goodness and Decency and Humanity finally prevail in these movies, part of the pleasure is the quiet assurance that society can now go on without the degenerates, the do-nothings, the weaklings, the hysterics, and the gaping idiots who just don’t know how to get out of the damn way.
All of which returns us to the semipocalypse of the moment, Contagion. As Adia Benton has written, the film actually delivers a sly critique of the “racialized geography of blame,” in which foreign countries are blamed for disease while (white, privileged) bodies are allowed to spread it across borders. In this respect, Contagion isn’t quite so different from its Victorian forbears: while not skimping on the nationalism, Dracula and War of the Worlds deliver implicit interrogations of imperialism, by casting their villains as the ultimate colonizers. Still, most people probably aren’t watching Contagion for its interrogation of power, but for its management of powerlessness. Some, like Libretto, are looking for comforting reminders of what Wesley Morris calls “solution-driven competence”, not least in the vaccine discovery that caps off the film; others, like one IMDB reviewer, treat it as a virological object lesson, “showing how a virus can spread from little situations and contact such as a doorknob or a wine glass.” In both cases, the upshot is for the audience to identify with the expert who finds the virus, the everyman who doesn’t touch the doorknob. These are the status quo’s savvy saviors, in whose endurance viewers can glimpse their own future. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow’s doomed character, if a representative of corporate irresponsibility, is also punished for her personal failings: engaged in an adulterous affair, Paltrow infects her lover and son before dying. Her cuckolded husband, played by Damon, is immune.
Do such films shape their audiences, or merely reflect what consumers want to see? Commenting on Contagion’s newfound popularity, sociologist Margie Kerr opts for the latter explanation, musing that the film helps viewers “reduce [their] anxiety and grapple with it on our own terms…When you’re watching [a pandemic] through the lens of a horror movie, it’s presenting the worst-case scenario, which gives us that level of absurdity that allows us to engage with it from a safe distance.” Kerr’s analysis, however, overlooks the fact that that safe distance has been carefully calibrated to maximize profit. Individualistic narratives are cash cows, and as Elias Isquith writes in a consideration of 2012’s blockbusters, “[Hollywood’s] business model—which is entirely dependent upon big money and even bigger audiences—determines the risks it will and won’t take, the questions it will and won’t ask, and the answers it will and won’t provide.” Neither innocent cathartic exercise nor elaborate conspiracy, blockbuster filmmaking operates much like the news media that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described in Manufacturing Consent: it produces content designed to run interference for the elite ruling class, drawing creatives whose instincts already incline them towards conservative reassurance. Such talents then find themselves pushed further in that direction at every turn, passing up opportunities to subvert or complexify. Or, as Upton Sinclair famously said of “commercial” newspaper editors, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Given the frightening efficacy of Hollywood’s ideological messaging, then, we shouldn’t be surprised if such catharsis primes the public to accept the rightwing austerity discourse infecting our real-life emergency. Rick Santelli’s monstrous recommendation that we should give “everyone” coronavirus, premised on limiting its ability to “[wreak] havoc on global and domestic economies,” turns out to have foreshadowed Trump calling to “open up” the U.S. by Easter, Fox anchors openly discussing human sacrifice, and The Federalist advocating voluntary “coronavirus parties.” Americans must also reckon with a relief package that excludes 80% of the working population from its guarantee of paid sick leave; a ventilator shortage that could lead American doctors to follow Italian physicians’ recommendations for an “age limit for access to intensive care”; and, most recently, a stimulus bill so unfair that it seems designed to vindicate the adage, popularized by Martin Luther King Jr., that America offers socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor. Amidst this litany of cruelties, pleas for social distancing have met the indifference of those who consider themselves low risk, as evidenced by defiant celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day and spring break. In a twist, the rooftop hedonists of Independence Day are now the enablers of apocalypse, not merely its hapless victims; the Lucys and unmanly curates of our time will just have to let the hale and healthy enjoy themselves.
Coronavirus may pass, but semipocalyptic callousness will not. A culture in which influential pundits can be relied upon to decry panic over a virus that “only” affects the elderly, or sneer at hypothetical dying SJWs, or suggest that death for the sake of the stock market is reasonable, is a culture with little room for the underprivileged victims of our interlocking crises. Indeed, even as the coronavirus outbreak has accelerated in the States, another sign of systemic breakdown has received minimal attention: the ongoing evidence of minority voter suppression in the Democratic primaries, on full display in Texas, California, and Michigan. Instead of taking this threat to democracy seriously, corporate media outlets downplayed such incidents, casting them as “technological snafus” rather than deliberately illiberal measures. (Had voting problems affected whiter, wealthier voters, one suspects the narrative would be rather different.) Then, of course, there is the climate emergency, already criminally overlooked by American journalism, whose disproportionate impact on the poor may be worsened by coronavirus. That these stories receive barely any coverage is, sadly, unsurprising. When our media is dominated by previews of trailers of reboots of comic book adaptations, in which spectacular destruction is reserved for nameless fools, why wouldn’t we accept that “only” a few million people are going to be displaced or extinguished?
Little wonder that, when we see democracy’s slow strangulation or a pandemic’s steady approach, many of us reflexively tell ourselves that at least it isn’t us. Such reactions are part and parcel of the ideological rhythms of semipocalypse. We walk out of the theater and shut off the screen when the credits roll, having become heroic survivors-by-proxy, Matt Damon scouring the supermarket, Chris Evans rallying the troops. The possibility that we might actually be Bystander #3, or Doomed Asian Medic, is drowned out by a fictional president’s rousing exhortation to not go quietly into the night. We clap and cheer, ignoring the reality that the civilization we’re upholding may already be casting people out into the night, kicking and screaming. Little wonder, too, that the odds are stacked against the one presidential candidate doggedly insisting on an inclusive response to the cataclysms waiting in the wings: Bernie Sanders. With respect to healthcare, the coronavirus has comprised an apocalypse in the original sense of the word, an unveiling of our system’s manifold weaknesses. Yet even as the need for radical action becomes all too apparent, the self-appointed leads of this unfolding drama scorn such measures as dangerous, petulant, unworthy of further discussion. Responding to Republican senators’ fretting about checks for low-wage workers, Sanders sarcastically mimicked their alarmism on Wednesday night: “Oh my God, the universe is collapsing!” When the extra dying in the background starts to demand equal screen time, that’s truly the end of the world.