One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 52
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
For many in the media-saturated public, fictional entertainment in the movies and on TV has served as a respite from a heightened diet of news and nonfiction informational programming. Yes, I used that word “entertainment,” the assumption being that Americans are looking for some in the evening, following a day of work (probably at home) and updates on the latest Covid-19 and quarantine news.
Not surprisingly, studios and independent players great and small have taken all that Covid and quarantine news and crafted it in to fictionalized entertainment for everyone to enjoy when they head into the living room to lighten up.
The films that have been released over the past 18 months—let’s call the new category “Covid Cinema”—traverse the genre spectrum and appear to be conceived with the genuine idea of entertainment in mind. (Well, not all genres—there hasn’t been a musical yet!). But they really haven’t made much of an impression at the box office, or with critics and general audiences. Sure, there’s a long, long history of disaster movies based on real-life happenings and tragedies out there, but they’ve generally been created with the kind of respectful hindsight that comes with time and distance. Perhaps it’s just that today’s audiences don’t need a reminder, particularly a fictionalized one, of a calamitous situation they’re still going through every day. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was tragic, yes, but the 1997 movie definitely wasn’t. And neither were any of the other Titanic movies. Time and distance.
Here’s a roundup of half-dozen films that have emerged since late last year through this month. They all take on what’s been going on since the lockdown began in March, 2020––and what may be going down in the immediate years to come.
Host (Released in July, 2020)
In an attempt to perk up their deathly slow quarantine experience, six friends hire a medium to hold an online séance via Zoom. The results appear to be more than the participants hoped for when something sinister begins to pick them off one by one. As if their pandemic boredom weren’t enough…
A creepy little British shocker set during the initial days of the lockdown, Host was directed entirely over Zoom by Rob Savage (who also served as co-writer).
Songbird (Released in December, 2020)
Songbird was the first of a handful of larger-budget Covid-oriented releases (it was produced by mini-major STX Entertainment. A thriller set in 2024 where Covid continues to ravage the world, it focuses on group of people who do their damnedest to cope with the ever-present virus, martial law, quarantine and all manner of criminal behavior.
Directed by music video veteran Adam Mason and featuring the familiar faces of actors Bradley Whitford, Alexandria Daddario, Peter Stormare, Sofia Carson and Demi Moore, Songbird lists Michael Bay as a producer, which explains all the explosions and gunplay.
Locked Down (Released in January, 2021)
Big name players Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor star as an unhappy couple forced to continue living together because of a lockdown order in the U.K. But at least their scheme to steal a diamond from Harrods department store keeps things interesting even as their love life grows thornier by the hour.
It’s one part rom-com and one part heist, presented with a handsome veneer by Doug Liman in the first film he’s directed since 2017’s under-appreciated Tom Cruise vehicle American Made.
Safer at Home (Released in February, 2021)
This indie thriller from director/co-writer Will Wernick is set in 2022 in a United States where the pandemic is still going strong and quarantine and curfew are a police state norm. For one group of young people, an online party filled with games, drinking and drugs is the answer to all the tension. But that’s only until some heated arguments, sexual discomfort, alcohol-fueled mistakes and drug freak-outs make the supposed safety of everyone’s homes even scarier than the chaos outside their doors. Oh, and in the 2022 of Safer at Home, Donald Trump is still President, making it more of a horror movie than a thriller.
Together (Released in August, 2021)
Perhaps the most inevitable narrative of the bunch, Together stars the always-game James McEvoy and Sharon Horgan as a troubled husband and wife staying together for the sake of their young son. They are plunged into the Covid lockdown and then forced to reevaluate themselves and their relationship.
Written by playwright Dennis Kelly and directed like a stage drama with long takes and fourth wall-breaking monologues by Stephen Daldry, this British comedy-drama premiered in the U,K on the BBC before rolling out to theaters on this side of the pond a few months later.
Coronavirus Conspiracy (Released in September, 2021)
Another indie entry that was shot at the height of the lockdown in August, 2020, this paranoidly titled surrealistic satire comes from writer-director James Sunshine, a seasoned reality TV producer whose credits include Hell’s Kitchen and Big Brother. It revolves around a crazed economist (Joseph Reitman) who thinks he’s discovered a link between animals, a secret cabal and Covid, leading him to kidnap a retired zookeeper (John Lehr) during the lockdown.
Set to stream on October 5 is what appears to be the first out-and-out quarantine comedy, the indie offering Distancing Socially from writer-director Chris Blake and featuring Resident Alien’s Alan Tudyk and Schitt’s Creek’s Sarah Levy. As per the trailer, this one looks like it’s a small ensemble piece that mines a lot of laughs out of a ubiquitous Zoom-like telecom app. And laughs right now. particularly light ones, aren’t a bad thing.
Of course, there will be more films to come—there always are—as we creep up on the two-year anniversary of the Covid outbreak and its accompanying horrors. Again, one day down the road, with a degree of time and renewed perspective, the content creators of the world will undoubtedly have something substantial, nuanced and wizened to say about these years. But right now, as retrospection and current events feel like they’re almost blending together, Covid Cinema offers a weird kind of parallel nostalgia to events that are still going on. Or it postulates a dangerous, militant and unhealthy near-future which, though it may not be quite dystopian, isn’t looking good, either.
Either way, it’s fair to say that this first round of Covid Cinema is only the beginning, as there are many stories to tell, from the personal to the epic. And as the talents who made these movies are finally able to move beyond the locked-down experiences that everyone had to endure during the darkest days of the pandemic, perhaps they’ll broaden their vision to more richly examine what this experience has done to us all.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.