There’s an old saw: Everyone’s got a book in them, and that’s a good place for it to stay. I suspect that in a year (or two, or however long this pandemic purgatory will last for us), we will discover that every screenwriter has a pandemic movie idea in them. I’m begging them not to prove me right. Here are the movie ideas we’re absolutely going to glimpse in trailers for Avatar 2 (coming to a theater near you in 2026, maybe).
Tagline: They didn’t think they’d find love … just six feet apart
My sympathies go out to a lot of different people during the pandemic, not the least to those who are living the single, underemployed life—one I remember all too keenly. Single friends have told me they are struggling to get through the prolonged isolation and are emotionally and psychologically exhausted with the risk calculus that comes with any contact with another human being. Dating was already next to impossible before adding the possibility of contracting a plague, but now it’s especially terrible.
So, Hollywood, spare us the rom-com that takes place entirely on the screens of apps and operating system desktops (with the serial numbers filed off and stickers slapped over the logos because Microsoft and Apple don’t feel like shelling out for product placement) about two young white people who had their lives planned out before the pandemic derails all of their plans to go visit Europe, finish their PhD, are any of the other things that were totally out of reach before the pandemic and are triply so so now that all job prospects have evaporated. We do not need to see them reach their low point when their supportive mutual (minority and/or nonbinary) friend dies of COVID-19. Just don’t do it.
Tagline: They survived the pandemic, but can they survive each other?
I’m willing to bet more than one Hollywood screenwriter was in a relationship juuuuust long enough to make the prospect of moving in with their current significant other to avoid a lonely quarantine very awkward. As we enter the sixth damn month of it, this buyer’s remorse (renter’s remorse?) is sure to have manifested in a bunch of passive-aggressive ways. Living with roommates sucks.
What moviegoers absolutely don’t need to see is a pale imitation of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon’s classic, trying to deliver yuks over a backdrop that has already killed more people than Vietnam. The bench of male comedians they’d try to lure into performaing this unenviable task is deep: Kumail Nanjiani and John Mulaney. Jim Jeffries and Seth Rogen. A big-name female actor playing the straight woman to Melissa McCarthy?
This would be a mediocre movie at the best of times. Make it about COVID-19 quarantine and it would be nearly impossible to watch.
Tagline: They’re not a hoax!
The ugly reasoning behind a lot of zombie flicks (or AAA videogames, or 30-season prestige TV shows) is that humans are the real monsters, what with our violence and tribalism.
And in this environment, it surely is easy to just succumb to that cynicism. A lot of people would probably love to see a zombie movie with an undead horde as a thinly veiled stand-in for the menace of COVID-19, filled with chuckle-headed idiot survivors shouting lines like “It’s a hoax!” or “Masks just spread the virus!” They’d be holed up in some too-on-the-nose building—I’m betting a school or a bar—as the entire situation inevitably ends in tragedy because the strawman in a red baseball cap doesn’t believe the zombies exist, the suburban housewife insists they need to just learn to live with the zombies, and the corporate leech insists on reopening the building because they can’t let the zombies ruin the economy.
It’s a daily struggle not to hate my fellow Americans, one I know we’re all going through. It’s important to remember that most of us, however, have gotten with the fucking program, and kept with it: More Americans wear masks, just as most Americans now believe they should be required. The failure here belongs to our leaders, who have not bothered to mitigate the pandemic in any meaningful way.
Tagline: It’s spreading…
Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 form a sort of trilogy, one in which you can chart how much dumber and less plausible each movie is than the last. Yes, the alien invasion one is somehow the most realistic. A movie about a super-pandemic that inexplicably causes the Eiffel Tower to fall over would neatly fit into the end of this progression as the absolute least plausible.
You can see it already, I’m sure. Brad Pitt (or Tom Cruise, or maybe Matt Damon if he needs his in-ground pool repaired) is a Science Dad with a beautiful, loving family and a satisfied home life, but his idyllic morning is interrupted when his wife, gazing with horror at the television, whispers “Honey…” and he turns up the volume just as the newscaster (Wolf Blitzer in a cameo) starts talking about a mounting death toll “in Asia.” Before he knows it, a helicopter lands on Science Dad’s lawn to whisk him away to a secure location, where he will fail to convince a bunch of hardass military types that the pandemic is the real deal. The scene will end when the president collapses into a coughing fit.
At some point, the sheer number of sick people will cause planes to fall out of the air and trucks to randomly run down secondary characters in the middle of the street, as our hero tries to traverse the country for some miracle cure. Along the way, he’s sure to be approached by desperate infected people, at whom he will point a gun and tearfully shout stuff like Get back!! and I’m sorry! He will survive because he’s a privileged white guy, much like the people who are more likely to survive this actual real-life pandemic.
Tagline: He was looking for a few good virologists
Some director (who am I kidding, it’s gonna be either Oliver Stone or Aaron Sorkin) just will not be able to help himself, and will make a movie that seeks to invest the current presidential administration with some level of emotional or intellectual complexity, using this pandemic as the set piece. If it’s Stone, it will (like W.) pass off all of Trump’s odious executive decisions onto his ghoulish advisors and try to make some case for him as a tragic victim of his upbringing. Sorkin will instead indulge in a fantasy of a West Wing that actually functions, in which too-fast dialogue and lofty speeches actually change people’s minds—nobody but your liberal parents will like it and Sorkin will grouse about the bad reviews.
Alternately, we will get a version that will cite the various tell-all books that this administration has left in its wake, (maybe with Fincher or Adam McKay at the helm), starring a series of A-listers underneath pounds of prosthetics. Those brave actors will win at least one Oscar among them for a film that will be unwatchable.
It’s hard to find a silver lining to anything right now in this disastrous year that has shredded the largest studios’ all-important release schedules, devastated local theaters, annihilated film festivals and put film crews on welfare. It is the sort of event unseen in nearly the entire history of the medium. It’s sure to bring change of some kind – maybe even the kind that will prevent these movies from being made.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.