Contagion And 6 Other Movies That Thoughtfully And Honestly Talk About Viruses Or Outbreaks

Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishburne in Contagion

For the longest time, movies like Contagion and Outbreak seemed like the stuff of Hollywood magic, but as the world finds itself in the middle of a growing outbreak of Coronavirus, those thrillers about the spread of viruses and other infectious diseases are starting to look more and more realistic.

As cities, states, and countries begin closing their doors to outside world in hopes of containing COVID-19, the world around us is falling into the early stages of fear, paranoia, and the delay of movies and other events. And while no one really knows how this virus will pan out, now might be a great time took look at some of the classic movies about global pandemics to see if there is anything we can learn.

Admittedly, it's a slippery slope with this genre as movies like the ones in this list often boil down to zombies or other supernatural elements, but there are a few films out there that provide a more realistic and honest depiction of how society reacts to the prospect of a global pandemic. Here are just a few of those movies.

Matt Damon in Contagion

Contagion (2011)

Contagion, the medical thriller from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh featured one of the best ensemble casts upon its 2011 theatrical release, and remains just as popular nearly 10 years later but for an entirely different reason. Much like the Coronavirus that is quickly working its way across the surface of the planet, the virus in this movie starts in China, is spread by a traveling businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who then brings it back to her home in the United States. Along the way, nearly everyone besides her husband (Matt Damon) is brought down to their knees by the virus as the world begins to isolate or die off.

This truly fascinating and anxiety-inducing disaster film offers a realistic portrayal of a world in the midst of a medical crisis as governments and private industries compete to contain the virus by coming up with vaccine that will hopefully save humanity while it still exists. The fear and isolation that is seen throughout the film brings back memories of the Ebola epidemic of 2014 that killed more than 11,000 people worldwide.

Rene Russo and Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak

Outbreak (1995)

Growing up, Outbreak was one of the movies that I would watch with a combination of excitement and fear, and those conflicted feelings remain to this very day. This 1995 medical disaster film features a star-studded cast lead by Dustin Hoffman as Colonel Sam Daniels, who along with his colleagues (Rene Russo and Kevin Spacey) are tasked with containing, Motaba, an Ebola-like virus in a small California town before it cane spread to the rest of the world.

The outbreak in question spreads after an infected monkey is stolen from an animal testing lab and then escapes. As the virus spreads, it quickly mutates and begins to spread like influenza. With no other choice, civilian and government agencies are forced to shut down the town at the center of the outbreak before it can grow into a worldwide pandemic. The practices carried out by the agencies is more or less realistic until the military steps in and tries to use the virus as a biological weapon.

Clive Owen in Children Of Men

Children Of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón's Children Of Men might not be the first movie that comes to mind when you start thinking about depictions of infectious diseases, but there are quite a few similarities to the real world's approach to dealing with a global calamity. Starring Clive Own as the activist turned anti-hero Theo Faron, this soul-crushing 2006 thriller welcomed audiences into a world that has been brought to the brink of collapse after years of widespread infertility and a flu pandemic.

This bleak, depressing, and emotional feature will break your body and spirit in its depiction of humanity it what could very well be its final moments. With the global economy virtually nonexistent, borders closed to outsiders, and people losing faith in humanity as a whole, it's frightening to see how easily society can collapse in the face of an outbreak.

Joel Edgerton in It Comes At Night

It Comes At Night (2017)

While most movies about viral outbreaks focus on the effects of disease on the macro level, the 2017 horror thriller It Comes At Night instead turns its attention to a small group of people and how a highly contagious infection slowly turns them against each other. Starring Joel Edgerton as Paul, the patriarch of a secluded family far away from society, the movie examines what happens when a group of people is forced to share close quarters in self-quarantine in hopes of survival.

This intimate look at the impacts of an unknown virus on a close-knit family and how it slowly rips them apart is one of the most depressing and evocative portrayals within the outbreak genre. With the prospect of the contagious disease making its way to the family's isolated home, the family begins turning against one another in order to keep themselves alive.

A group of doctors at a loss for words in Flu

Flu (2013)

The 2013 South Korean film Flu ponders the idea of what would happen to society if a highly aggressive and contagious strain of Influenza A burned its way through a major metropolitan area. After a group of smugglers locates and opens a shipping container housing several illegal immigrants who died of an unknown illness, the deadly virus quickly begins to spread throughout one of the largest cities in South Korea, killing its victims within 36 hours.

Like any good disaster movie, Flu depicts a society that is brought crumbling down by a contagious outbreak and the inadequate response by government agencies to contain the virus before it's too late. Throw in elements of civil unrest, authoritarianism, and lots and lots of death and you have yourself a recipe for disaster.

What's left of society in Virus

Virus (1980)

Released during the height of the Cold War, the Japanese post-apocalyptic action film Virus explores what would happen if the flu were to wipe out most of society, leaving behind a crumbling nuclear stockpile that could go up at any time. This outbreak in this 1980 thriller is started when a deadly manmade virus comes in contact and amplifies the potency of another virus, causing an extinction-level event. With no one to keep the world's nuclear arsenal in check, a natural disaster quickly makes matter much worse.

Although this Japanese epic veers into the fantastical side at times, it does pose an honest question - what would happen to the world's weapons if no one was left to manage them?

Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo in Blindness

Blindness (2008)

Based on the novel of the same name, the 2008 thriller Blindness shows how quickly the world would come crashing down from the effects of an epidemic of blindness. Starring Julianne Moore as a woman immune to the epidemic who fakes her blindness to stay with her husband (Mark Ruffalo), the movie shows a large spectrum of reactions - both good and bad - to the ensuing epidemic.

Blindness kicks into high gear when the blind get sent off to what would later become concentration camps while the government tries to figure out what is going on. And like any good disaster movie, law and order quickly deteriorate as everyone (besides Moore's character) falls into a world of blindness.

Do these movies help ease your fears or do they just make matter worse for your emotional and mental state? Let us know in the comments below, and remember, be careful out there as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.