These are peak times for streaming, when sofas and beds become multiplexes. So, we welcome you to this week’s batch of recommendations to help you through your secluded times at home.
Last week, we shared with you our top docs on Netflix. This week, we rummaged the streaming giant for the best films and hidden gems dealing with pandemics, seclusion and the apocalypse. All cheery stuff.
(Let’s hope the quality of image still holds up, as those cheeky bastards have stated they’ve reduced the video quality to reduce the strain on internet service providers…)
While it’s true that escapism is paramount, many choose immersion. Not that revisiting or discovering films that directly address or echo the current state of affairs precludes escapism; studies have suggested that horror or anxiety-inducing films can be paradoxically comforting, and that the dopamine release of ‘surviving’ a scary film calms the brain. We also have the tendency to seek out media that feels relevant: it’s a form of immersion therapy that allows us to project our fears, theorise what worse case scenarios might look like, and possibly encounter consolation through confrontation. There’s a sense of alleviation when we’re faced with the realisation that things could be significantly worse. Like zombie-worse.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that stomach-tightening and scarily topical films like Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 procedural thriller Contagion (which recently shot up to the Top 5 list of most-rented movies on iTunes) or the 1995 film Outbreak have seen a spike in digital sales.
No one knows quite how our current predicament will pan out, but there are some cracking films out there dealing with global outbreaks and the aftermath of pandemics. Whether they’re dystopian genre movies, claustrophobic chamber pieces or eerily honest depictions of society’s reactions to illness, here are 10 films worth celebrating from the safety of your own homes.
28 DAYS LATER / 28 WEEKS LATER
This zombie Armageddon double-bill is a must-watch that boasts the requisite amount of suspense and gore, but is also blessed with plenty of brains. Both films feature timely parallels, even if the zombie-like creatures we’re currently dealing with are only interested in stockpiling toilet paper and hoarding hand sanitizer, as opposed to ripping out larynxes. So far, mind you.
Danny Boyle’s 2002 post-apocalyptic horror film led to a resurgence in the zombie drama – even if purists will rightfully argue that despite the violently convulsive movements and chompy proclivities on show, there are no zombies here. 28 Days Later stands up to this day as one of the genre’s very best. It sees a holocaust unleashed by animal-rights activists who unwittingly release infected test subjects from a research facility in Cambridge. Of course, it’s Cambridge. The deadly virus results in Rage-infected humans who decimate the UK, leaving entire cities as barren wastelands.
Not only providing a platform for the then-burgeoning talents of Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, but also enough space for some psychological layering between the scares, 28 Days Later uses familiar landmarks to heighten the survivalist horror and emphasize how unsettlingly possible this all could be. It also proves you don’t need a massive budget to craft some powerfully memorable moments, including a haunting opening walk around a deserted Westminster. It’s a stunning achievement. Boyle and his team had a very limited window of time to film in closed-off sections of Central London, shooting in the wee hours of the morning. The rumour is that the crew hired a group of models to distract and usher away the drunken revellers coming out of clubs, so they didn’t spoil the shots.
The 2007 sequel was directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (his second film after the brilliant and underseen allegorical thriller Intacto) and is set after the events of the first film. It depicts the efforts of NATO military forces, who are quarantining survivors in a safe zone in London. However, two siblings seeking out the truth behind their mother’s death decide to break protocol, unleashing the Rage virus into the safe zone. Starring the great Robert Carlyle and featuring top performances by Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots, 28 Weeks Later holds up to Boyle’s original. The bravura opening set piece alone is harrowing, and the breathless pacing will leave you sweating spinal fluid. And if that house from the opening looks mighty familiar, that’s because it’s the same one used in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men.
It was announced last year that Boyle and 28 Days Later’s screenwriter Alex Garland (of Ex Machina and Annihilation fame – more on him later) have their minds set on a third chapter. With any luck – and a healthy dose of cynicism – Covid-19 might enliven studio interest for 28 Months Later…
EL HOYO (THE PLATFORM)
Winner of the People’s Choice Award for Midnight Madness at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the freshest release on this list isn’t about a pandemic, but it’s a survivalist thriller that has enough timely echoes to merit an inclusion. The Platform is an allegorical horror set in a tower-style prison where inmates get access to food via a gradually descending platform. It’s a fair system if each inmate takes their fair share, but if the top levels lionise the supplies, then those below suffer.
Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, this increasingly sadistic flick feels like a nasty mishmash of Cube and Sartre’s No Exit, and shares J. G. Ballard-reminiscent themes with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (more on that one in a bit). It never truly rises to these reference points, as David Desola and Pedro Rivero’s repetitive script can’t be accused of being particularly profound. This is dystopian allegory by-numbers, a heavy-handed yet unquestionably well-executed commentary about the lopsided-by-design capitalist systems we create and how the Sartrian adage still rings true: hell is other people. Despite the fact the conceit gets away from Gaztelu-Urrutia (especially towards the end), the film boasts some hellish flourishes and shows that Netflix have a shrewd sense of timing: much like their Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak series, this claustrophobic effort couldn’t have been released at a more opportune moment. Especially since The Platform bleakly stresses the importance of solidarity and holds up an unimpressed mirror to the hamsterkauf-ing viewers at home.
We may come out of all of this better people, with a renewed sense of collective empathy and a reappreciation for the luxuries we took for granted… Who knows? Failing that, at least we’ll never look at panna cottas in the same way.
Stronger, equally as unnerving and also dealing with food is The Invitation, a taut and devilishly effective huis-clos that doesn’t have The Platform’s dystopian credentials but remains all-too-perfect for these confined times.
Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Destroyer), this psychological thriller sees Will (Logan Marshall-Green, making up for his nose-bleedingly irritating turn in Prometheus) and his partner Kira (the wonderfully named Emayatzy Corinealdi) go to a party held by his ex-wife Eden and her new hubby David (Tammy Blanchard and Michiel Huisman). Once all the guests get there and the evening progresses, Will begins to suspect Eden has joined a cult and might be trying to convert them.
The less said the better. Safe to share that this dimly-lit, slow-burning chamber piece earns its place in the pantheon of awkward dinner party films. Kusama is in complete control throughout, has clearly done her research (that party game is a common technique used by cults to break down boundaries and initial inhibitions), and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi brilliantly capture what makes certain social situations so unbearable. In many ways, the first half is more about the pitfalls and dangers of societally-accepted politeness. But ultimately, misdirection is the name of the game, with the gradually dialled-up tension adding layers to the theme of grief and forcing the audience to confront their preconceived ideas. And even if you think you know where The Invitation is heading, there are enough unexpected and uncomfortable beats to keep you on your tippy toes. The denouement won’t be for everyone, but it’ll haunt you for days to come.
Back to pandemics… This underseen 2017 Netflix original was developed from a 7-minute long short film directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, which followed an infected dad who seeks shelter for his daughter before his time runs out. The ruthlessly effective short undeniably outshines the feature, which expands on the same premise: set in the Australian outback in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, Martin Freeman desperately trying to find a safe haven for his infant daughter, knowing that no cure can save him.
It’s a restrained tale with plenty of soul that echoes The Road and Walkabout. It may not bring too many new ideas to the table, but does have a stripped-back understanding of what makes the genre so effective, namely relatable stakes and the dreadful possibility of loss. And, unlike many zombie survival flicks, Cargo doesn’t go down the political route and doesn’t feel the need to crowbar too much protracted social commentary. It’s content in being a well-orchestrated human story about the mountains you’re prepared to climb in order to protect those you love. 15 years after 28 Days Later, it proved that the ubiquitous genre still had some brains left in it.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD
Name a better way to prep for an outbreak than by rewatching Edgar Wright’s first instalment in the Cornetto Trilogy? I’ll wait.
What began as a recurring gag in an episode of Spaced (“Art” – Season 1, Episode 3 if anyone fancies a gander) became the first rom-zom-com, which went on to become one of the 21st Century’s finest comedies. Many have tried to inject comedy into the zombie genre, but none have succeeded quite like Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who co-wrote this cult classic. Openly inspired by George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, it’s a meticulously crafted tour de force whose repeat viewings reveal even more cultural references and cinephile-gags.
Its plus points are too numerous to mention – it’s witty, endlessly quotable and strikes the perfect balance between gory and hilarious, with the horror and comedy genres both creatively complementing each other. It’s so good that even caught the attention of genre granddaddy George A. Romero, who liked Shaun Of The Dead so much that he asked Pegg and Wright to cameo in his fourth Dead film, 2005’s Land Of The Dead. Loop looped.
IT COMES AT NIGHT
Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night is a pared-down tale of survival which chronicles a fragile cohabitation between two secluded families after a mysterious virus has seemingly ravaged the world. Rooted in psychological horror and eschewing easy scares, Shults makes up for a sparse narrative with bleak beats and a masterfully oppressive ratcheting of tension.
The film experienced something of a backlash, chiefly due to some misleading marketing and trailers that suggested more mainstream thrills. While some can call out It Comes At Night as a case of style over substance, fans of moodily orchestrated scares will marvel at how mounting paranoia and terror is handled without resorting to the obvious conjuring of zombies and monsters. This is a bleakly evocative and claustrophobic film about a viral outbreak that examines how close-quartered paranoia leads to homo homini lupus. The perfect movie to watch with housemates then…
This is another one that isn’t a pandemic film per se, but from quarantining to the mutating cells of an alien infection, it fits the bill regardless.
When Alex Garland (yes, that absolute hero again) took on the daunting task of adapting Jeff Vandermeer’s sci-novel, no one imagined it would get unceremoniously dumped on Netflix after a very brief cinema stint in 2018. The producers clearly lost their nerve, resulting in one of the most ambitious and tantalisingly ambiguous genre films in years missing out on the cinemagoers it deserved.
Natalie Portman stars as a biologist who embarks on a mission into a mysterious place known as ‘Area X’, where her husband ventured and came back altered. With her on this expedition to penetrate the rainbow-coloured “shimmer” that delimitates the strange zone is a team of women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny), all of whom are connected by some form self-destructive impulse, in all its permutations.
The unnecessary narrative framework is the only minor bum note; aside from that, Annihilation is an underappreciated masterpiece which benefits from a thought-provoking script, disturbingly sumptuous flourishes (which include Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s haunting score), as well as an intentionally demanding finale you won’t soon forget. This is cerebral and kaleidoscopic sci-fi that guarantees debate: it asks questions about the nature of our existence and if our self-destructive nature means we’re doomed to go the way of the dinosaur. Whether its climate change, nuclear testing or new virus strands, alarm bells should be ringing.
This 2013 film from Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho saw the Korean filmmaker adapt the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The result is a bizarre sci-fi allegory taking place in the aftermath of the pandemic, one that is violent, quirky, and features moments of Terry Gilliam-esque deliriousness.
In a misguided attempt to end global warming (let’s not let Covid-19 completely eclipse our other pressing concern), humanity utterly fowls it up and ends up introducing a new ice age. The remaining life finds itself secluded on the Snowpiercer train, a metallic arc that self-sustainingly races around the globe. The front of the train is populated by the rich elite, while the back end consists of the oppressed, who live huddled in terrible conditions. Led by reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans, proving there’s more to him than Captain America) and mentored by Gilliam (John Hurt), the have-nots lead the revolution against the 1 percent.
Even if this stylish dystopian thrill ride isn’t your bag, the wonderful Tilda Swinton alone is worth the watch. She delivers a brilliantly caricatured portrayal of a despot’s ingratiatingly smarmy lieutenant, sporting a Margaret Thatcher overbite and a grotesquely thick Yorkshire accent. You can’t take your eyes off her for one second, and her performance galvanises the familiar Orwellian tropes of class revolution and the control of the elite on the masses.
EL BAR (THE BAR)
Finishing on another Spanish film and keeping that claustrophobic sense of seclusion, Alex de la Iglesia’s El Bar (The Bar) is a messy but ludicrously entertaining black comedy. It might be this list’s weakest entry, but it’s still worth the watch.
Shot almost entirely in one setting, a motley crew of patrons find themselves sequestered in a café in the center of Madrid. They witness an incomprehensible incident that gives them a simple but potentially deadly choice: brave the outdoors or stay in the bar until whatever’s happening clears up. It’s essentially Outbreak meets The Twilight Zone. The first half of the film sees the director humorously comment on the divisions in society through this microcosm of Spanish society; the second ditches these avenues and fully embraces its 1980s B-movie credentials and aesthetic.
Jorge Guerricaechevarria’s script can’t quite sustain the top-heavy momentum and as the film becomes increasingly grimy, so does the narrative’s predictability and the unapologetic leeriness when it comes to one female protagonist. That said, there isn’t a dull moment in this hot mess, and it does satisfyingly grapple with its tagline “Fear shows us who we are”, frenetically exposing the limits of human empathy when faced with a state of panic. You’re left with a gonzo romp that’s weirder than the average mainstream Netflix offering, and surely that’s worth celebrating.
That’s it from us this week. Happy streaming, be kind to each other and stay tuned to exberliner.com during the coming weeks for exclusive content and more home-viewing tips.