Confusion, conspiracy, misinformation, new developments every day, experts at odds, pangolins and bats. With so much to process about the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy for perceptions to get blurred. Let us look for the truth elsewhere. How about the best pandemic movies with nearly accurate treatment of the subject, and documentaries with a factual perspective of viral outbreaks, including COVID-19?
A top pick on every best pandemic movies list, the 2011 thriller had a second-coming of sorts as the COVID-19 outbreak began gathering steam. Social media conversations were quick to note the spooky, almost prophetic similarities between Contagion’s fictitious viral pandemic and the one devastating the planet for real. In an email to npr.org who ran a fact-check story on Contagion, the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Burns wrote, “We were trying to tell a story that was credible within the boundaries of scientific understanding, but also illuminate how our world might respond.”
Contagion balances scientific similarities with cinematic liberty. Experts concurred that the movie delivers a fairly accurate depiction of the origin and spread of a viral outbreak, contact tracing and disease control protocols. Contagion will satisfy your urge to deep-dive into the makings of a pandemic. If science is not your play, it’s still worth your time for the starry cast and pacy screenplay.
What: Healthcare professionals, government officials and everyday people find themselves in the midst of a pandemic as the CDC works to find a cure.
Who: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard
Where: Amazon Prime Video
If you were a 90s teenager with a thing for disaster movies, you likely watched and were riveted by an embattled Dustin Hoffman in protective gear. Widely considered ahead of its time, Outbreak bears striking similarities to the COVID-19 crisis despite its imaginary virus taking inspiration from Ebola.
In a scene that reflects present day reality, a man coughs in a movie theatre and the camera trails the airborne particles floating into another person’s mouth.
In his review, Roger Ebert, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize wrote, “It is one of the great scare stories of our time, the notion that deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking, and if they ever escape their jungle homes and enter the human bloodstream, there will be a new plague the likes of which we have never seen.” A telling sign of present times from 25 years ago.
Is it worth watching? We’ll leave you with this New York Times headline—Outbreak Was a Hit in 1995. Now We’re Living the Sequel.
What: When a deadly virus, carried by a monkey host from the African rain forest, starts infecting the entire population, a handful of scientists struggle to find a cure.
Who: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey
93 Days (2016)
The film starring Danny Glover and an all-Nigerian cast recounts an actual 2014 Ebola outbreak in Nigeria that was contained by Dr Stella Ameyo Adadevoh and her colleagues from a Lagos hospital. Going beyond the typical origin story and high-octane ER action tropes, 93 Days digs deeper into the personal stories of the individuals who took risks, made sacrifices, and overcome political pressure and systemic inefficiencies to save their countrymen from what could have been an epic disaster. Their efforts were hailed by WHO as a “spectacular success story”.
Watch 93 Days for its take on real people and their personal battles in the backdrop of a impending medical disaster.
What: The film recounts the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Nigeria and its successful containment by health workers from a Lagos hospital.
Who: Danny Glover, Bimbo Akintola (Dr Adadevoh)
Our proud Indian entry in the league of best pandemic movies, the eponymously titled Virus dramatises the 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala. Based on the outbreak that shook the state of Kerala, gripped Kozhikode with fear and set off conspiracy theories, critics hailed Virus as ‘gripping medical drama’, ‘heady mix of dread and hope’ and ‘brilliantly crafted film that is mighty impressive on all counts’.
Brilliantly directed and convincingly enacted, Virus is a slow burn with its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, but stellar performances and solid writing keep you hooked. Once you’re into the thick of things, the language barrier will melt away when watching this Malayalam drama with subtitles in English, Hindi and other regional languages.
What: A real life account of the deadly Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, and the courageous fight put on by several individuals which helped to contain the epidemic.
Who: Parvathy Thiruvothu, Tovino Thomas, Basil Joseph, Revathy
Where: Amazon Prime Video
Coronavirus, Explained (2020)
As topical as can be, Coronavirus, Explained is a must-watch if you want direct answers by the medical fraternity and frontline warriors to the most pressing questions about the COVID-19 pandemic. Packaged as a three-episode docu-series, Coronavirus, Explained is a timely and pertinent narrative (in the familiar voices of Idris Elba and Laura Linney) that lets its audience see the pandemic through a scientific lens without layers of media and ‘expert’ interpretations.
What: An examination of the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to combat it and ways to manage its mental health toll.
Who: Narrated by J. K. Simmons, Laura Linney, Idris Elba
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak (2020)
The release of this six-part documentary series in January 2020 was “eerily timed”, said The Guardian. Coming on the heels of COVID-19, Pandemic is an investigative feature that tracks researchers, doctors and medical experts explaining the origin and dynamics of a viral pandemic, and at work battling outbreaks. The series profiles medical professionals at the front line of the battle to predict and prevent the next major outbreak. Filmed across the United States, Democratic Republic of the Congo and India, Pandemic also features voices from the other side—the anti-vaccine community, and uninformed people with distrust for modern science and government regulations. Notwithstanding the media attention it received, Pandemic is an eye-opening account of the unending battle against viral outbreaks and how the next outbreak is always looming upon us.
Months after its January release, Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak still maintains a perfect 100% score by critics.
What: Profiling the men and women on the front lines of the battle against influenza; the steps they’re taking to stop the next global outbreak.
Who: Playing themself; Syra Madad, Jake Glanville, Sarah Ives, Dr Dinesh Vijay
COVID-19: India’s War Against the Virus (2020)
Rounding off our list is another Indian pick that documents the global and Indian timelines of the outbreak and spotlights key developments in India since the first victim was traced in Kerala. Shot almost entirely during India’s nationwide lockdown and dubbed in seven languages, COVID-19: India’s War Against the Virus, provides an Indian perspective of the national fight against the pandemic, and the country’s potential as a global leader of the pharmaceutical industry. Along with scores of scientists, researchers, doctors, government officials, the documentary features PM Narendra Modi, Bill Gates and actor Sonu Sood.
What: Citizens from different walks of life come together to make a positive difference during a global crisis.
Who: Narrated by Manoj Bajpayee (Hindi), Gautham Menon (Tamil)
Where: Discovery Plus