2020: The disaster film with no end

Photo of Jude Law in the movie, "Contagion"
IMDb/Courtesy

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This year, Halloween crept up with pocketfuls of relatable bad-joke fodder, all about how we don’t need spooky season given how we’ve worn masks, eaten junk food and felt spooked out of our wits for the last eight months. One of the safer ways to celebrate during quarantine is a stay-at-home movie night, chock-full of films that ironically reflect the same themes that have been gifted to our everyday lives since the pandemic seized the year. The eerie and desolate now strike a chord of relatability.

The year 2020 came down with one blow after another. March 3 saw the first Berkeley COVID-19 case. On March 4, California declared a state of emergency. On March 9, classes went virtual. On March 13, virtual learning was set to finish out the school year. On March 19, the California stay-at-home order was issued. On April 3, summer classes went virtual.

Of course, this left people in a state of shock — routines, jobs, socialization and toilet paper were all stripped away in the span of a month. People panicked and bought supplies the second stores restocked. Given anyone could be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19, nobody knew who was safe from the disease, or what preventative measures worked, or even the severity of the virus or reliability of information.

As the pandemic waged on, research came out indicating that engaging with horror and crisis-related films can make people more resilient and prepared when approaching a disaster situation — in other words, horror buffs are likely better equipped to handle the perils of COVID-19. In general, horror and disaster films play off similar feelings of fear, isolation and uncertainty that have made up the backdrop of 2020.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that, since the pandemic, films like “Contagion” (2011) have seen a spark in viewership. This shows a fascination with seeing our new normal reflected back to us in fiction through situations where we are the outsider to the events, seeing them roll out to their inevitable conclusion. However, while viewing crises in films can build up coping mechanisms for facing 2020, you can’t see the finish line when it’s real.

To make matters worse, the disaster is only the precursor to the fallout

The films still mirror the uncertainty of the experience, but at the end of the day, they cinch it with answers. The comparison may be most obvious with a film like “Contagion,” in which the world faces a deadly pandemic: The people doubt the science, worrying it is all for ulterior motives, and the scientists have yet to understand the disease. Still, they eventually find a vaccine, and people can start rebuilding their lives. End scene.

Our worry about reliable information also has a cinematic counterpart. In the 2016 psychological thriller “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the protagonist wonders whether a man is inventing a disaster situation in order to keep her captive – but eventually picks apart the mystery.

Even in slasher films and the satirical “Scream” franchise, characters start with no clue about the identity or intentions of the murderer and exist in constant doubt over distinguishing friend from foe. By the end, they pull off the killer’s mask and clip on the handcuffs.

Unlike a movie, however, the year 2020 doesn’t have to give us an answer or even stick to one theme. Viewers could trust “Contagion” would focus on the pandemic; COVID-19, in contrast, has been coupled with unpredictable threats every couple months, from police brutality and contentious protests to California’s worst wildfire season yet. There’s no guessing what will come next.

To make matters worse, the disaster is only the precursor to the fallout. While movies are certain to have an end, the year 2020 won’t be wrapped up with a nice bow on top and a note that says, “Pandemic over, economy patched up, climate change reversed, jobs for all with a side of world peace for kicks. Please return to your regularly scheduled programming.”

Instead, we’ll get “2020: The Movie” sent straight to digital streaming (because movie theaters and pandemics don’t mix). We’ll kick up our feet on the couch and watch until it cuts off mid-sentence, leaving us to guess the ending.

Contact Danielle Bennett at [email protected].