Pandemic epics or great escapes? What classic movies might tell us about post-Covid Hollywood

Should we expect hordes of allegorical aliens and zombies – or a soothing succession of romcoms and musicals? Cinema history offers some clues

The screenwriter William Goldman cautioned against making predictions in the movie business with the line: “Nobody knows anything.” That said, there is one thing we do know: global events leave their mark on cinema – and things don’t get much bigger than a worldwide pandemic. And not always in the ways you’d expect. So, if we’re looking for clues about films that will be released in the years to come, is cinema history any help?

The pandemic is the biggest global crisis since the second world war, and, if we look back to the cinema of that era, one trend in particular stands out: the arrival of film noir. Classics of the genre, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and The Killers, were dark, cynical tales about murder plots, manipulative women and morally compromised men. Might post-Covid cinema take an equally dark turn?

Possibly – though film-makers and audiences may need a bit of a break first. Ed Guiney, producer of the Oscar-winning films Room and The Favourite, told me: “I don’t feel the desire to watch something that speaks directly to the pandemic.” Instead, he’s craving films that are “enjoyable” and “exuberant”. So expect a deluge of musicals, romances or comedies.

Sign from space … The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Sign from space … The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Everett/Rex

However, with sufficient distance, it’s inevitable that Covid will show up in cinema in one shape or another – but that shape may well be an alien, monster or zombie. When America has come under threat in the past, it has often used genre as a way of telling the story. During the cold war years, the fear of nuclear annihilation sparked a sci-fi boom, with films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob. And, after 9/11, horror of all stripes became popular, from big-budget disaster films such as Spielberg’s War of the Worlds to that B-movie favourite: zombies.

Kevin J Wetmore, author of Post 9/11 Horror in American Cinema, has a theory about zombies: “They’re angry, they’re fast; they want to convert you to their way of life. Zombies are, he says, “a stand-in for Islamist terrorism”. Zombies also seem like an obvious metaphor for a contagious disease. But Andy Willis, professor of film studies at the University of Salford, says this time around we’re unlikely to turn to the walking undead. Perhaps because zombies have been done to death over the past couple of decades.

Instead, Willis says genre film may see stories similar to those of the 50s, in which there is an unseen monster that appears from nowhere or where people are struggling to find an explanation for the threat. That makes sense. Covid, at least in the panicky first few weeks of the pandemic, had much in common with nuclear anxiety. It was invisible and not fully understood and yet seemed as if it had the potential to destroy the world.

We’re still very much in the middle of the crisis. And perhaps the mood and direction of cinema will depend on how well we can get a handle on the virus. Sci-fi in the 50s was, for the most part, hopeful about the world’s resilience – or at least America’s. The government or scientists usually managed to defeat the extraterrestrials and order was restored. Today, we may have lost faith in government, but, so far at least, scientists seem to be doing a good job of saving the day.

Creepy … Rob Savage’s film Host
Creepy … Rob Savage’s film Host Photograph: PR

On the other hand, Covid-19, though deadly, doesn’t provoke the same visceral terror as a plane flying into a building or nuclear annihilation. Instead, for many of us, this past year has been (to borrow a phrase from an article in Wired magazine) “‘perilously boring”. It has poured fire on everyday issues: burnout, relationship tensions, money worries, loneliness. And it’s in this domestic pressure cooker that Wetmore believes film-makers will find inspiration. “I think we’ll see films that deal with isolation or being trapped,” he says. And paranoid stories in which “the person with whom I share my life must now be a stranger until we can find out if it’s safe”.

Films may also reflect the societal shifts, both profound and small, that Covid has ushered in – and in some cases, they are already doing so. In the creepy horror Host, released in 2020, all the action plays out over Zoom. Just as, in the post-9/11 years, there was an explosion in found-footage films that mirrored the way the world watched the attack on the twin towers – in real time, on a shaky videocam.

As the months roll on and vaccines neuter the virus, our attention might turn away from danger to the things we’ve missed. Such as human connection. As film industry data researcher Stephen Follows suggests: “The first person who releases a film that is nothing but 90 minutes of people hugging and just hanging out in social environments – that’s going to be a blockbuster.”

Rachael Swindale

The GuardianTramp

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