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8 popular films that predicted viral outbreaks

By Paul Hsiao 5 March 2020

Header image courtesy of Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

As always, the netizens of the world have been keeping themselves busy and entertained during this uncertain time of novel coronavirus, so much so that rental films about pandemics have shot up in popularity. Contagion is the second-most-watched film in the Warner Bros. catalogue, topped only by the inimitable Harry Potter franchise, and it’s become so popular in recent weeks that it is now one of iTunes’ most-watched movies.

However, it was not the first (or only) film associated with viral outbreaks, and IMDB users have even taken to rating their favourite ones. Probably the best thing so far about the coronavirus is that it is immensely less dangerous than some of the diseases featured in the following movies.

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Contagion (2011)

Nearly a decade ago, Steven Soderbergh brought the arguable best depiction of a global pandemic to the big screen (perhaps too well). Led by a star-studded cast with the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, and Jude Law, the movie stands out from its contemporaries by focusing on the very human impact the secondary effects of a virus—quarantine, internet fear-mongering, and politics, to name a few—might bring.

12 Monkeys (1995)

Forty years after a virus released by a mysterious group called The Army of Twelve Monkeys wipes out most of the population on Earth, Bruce Willis’ James Cole is sent back in time to track down the group and prevent the spread of the virus. Fun fact: Before Brad Pitt won his Academy Award for his supporting turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he was first nominated for his performance in 12 Monkey as an erratic mental patient.

Outbreak (1995)

1995 seems to have been a strong year for pandemic-focused films. If you combine a viral outbreak with the campiness of the 1990s, you probably get something pretty close to Outbreak. The film features the furrowed brows of Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, and Renee Russo scrambling to find a cure for an ebola-like disease called Motaba while uncovering a hush-hush military plot eventually turn the disease into a weapon. While entertaining, the film has also been hilariously criticised for an inaccurate depiction of medical practices.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

World War Z (2013)

In a film where zombies pile themselves-up to form a human wall and the lead character somehow survives a grenade-induced plane crash, the most unrealistic thing about the movie is Brad Pitt as a UN inspector for dangerous geographies. Hans Blix, you are not. Based (very) loosely on the best-selling book, the film is more of an action-adventure take on what happens when a “rabies” outbreak originating in China results in zombies instead of millions of Instagram likes.

I Am Legend (2007)

Half contemplative apocalyptic drama and half “adopt a dog” commercial, I Am Legend tells the story of Robert Neville, played Will Smith, an army virologist who attempts to find a cure after a genetically-enhanced version of measles wipes out most of humanity. Will Smith is essentially a one-man show here flexing both his acting chops and pectoral muscles while accompanied by the cutest on-screen German shepherd.

Rise of Planet of the Apes (2011)

While all of the Apes movies are worth watching, the first one is arguably the best. James Franco plays a scientist tasked with finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and unintentionally causes increased intelligence in apes and a debilitating human disease while experimenting on animals. Featuring a groundbreaking motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis (a.k.a Gollum from The Lord of the Rings franchise), the film (and its subsequent sequels) the film masterfully balances the pseudo-science with relevant social messages.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

It Comes at Night (2017)

When Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” he cautioned against the dangers of prejudice and judgement when it comes to strangers. That premise is thoughtfully explored in the independent horror film It Comes at Night that follows a family, led by The King’s Joel Edgerton and Selma’s Carmen Ejogo, that takes to the woods following the spread of a fast-acting, highly contagious disease. Paranoia seeps in when another family with a young child arrives on their doorstep. A confident and quietly thrilling movie that’s the spiritual successor to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Daybreakers (2009)

Many pandemic films like to focus on a planet overrun by zombies as the end result, but sci-fi thriller Daybreakers goes the opposite way. Ethan Hawke steps into action as vampire haematologist Edward Dalton, who lives in a world where a mysterious plague transforms most of the world’s population into immortal vampires and the remaining humans are captured and harvested in laboratory farms. Faced with a dwindling blood supply, the fractured dominant race plots their survival; meanwhile, Dalton encounters a covert band of human survivors led by former vampire Elvis (Willem Dafoe) on their way to save humankind.

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Paul Hsiao


Paul, the founder of Movieconomist, likes to watch movies and make graphs. He also writes a monthly column on Localiiz about new Netflix releases and is a lead community director for Finimize. His writing has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, CNBC, Financial Times, Asia Investor, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He also spends a great deal of time playing squash.