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Self-quarantined? Here are 5 pandemic movies where we ultimately beat the virus

By Benjamin Bullard
I Am Legend

In the face of our current national emergency, likely the last thing your employer, school, or professional sports team wants is for you to show up and mix your nasty germs with everyone else’s. So you’ve decided to stay home while the ill coronavirus wind blows through the nearly empty streets. It’s a pandemic out there — and you’re doing your duty for public health by sheltering in place. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be entertained.

As theaters, fan cons, and, yes, the places where we work all batten down the hatches to try to minimize the spread of coronavirus, Hollywood’s rich litany of apocalyptic movies about global pandemics are, well, going viral. But if we’re gonna binge on a visual diet of biohazardous panic and terror for the foreseeable future, we’re taking a stand and laying down some ground rules right now. And the first commandment as we set up our quaran-streaming queues just may be the most important one of all: Let’s keep a little optimism here, people!

Sure, there are tons of pessimistic plague movies out there, and we’re not saying a lot of them aren’t great. But in these trying times, what we’re really craving is some good old-fashioned bug-vanquishing hope. When the credits roll, we wanna see the good guys standing proudly over all those evil little parasites that couldn’t conquer our unwavering will to band together and beat back an existential threat. So buck up — we’re gonna lick this thing. No, wait — don’t lick anything; you don’t know where it’s been! Just watch these germ-fighting films where humanity actually comes out on top … and get ready to stand up and cheer.

The Andromeda Strain

When you absolutely, positively have to trace your planet-menacing microbe back to a single point of origin, it gets no simpler than having full government clearance to venture into off-limits territory and planting your flag at the crash site where the darned thing fell to Earth in the first place. And that’s the exact setup for The Andromeda Strain, director Robert Wise’s 1971 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel about a desert satellite crash that brings home more than just your standard-issue debris field.

Military scientists walk up on a New Mexico crash scene that mysteriously decimated the nearby population, and find a fast-killing alien pathogen (not technically a virus, but hey, we’re not picky) that instantly solidifies the blood of its victims. Fortunately, the government’s been stealthily preparing for just such a scenario, and after some heart-stopping near-misses, Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) pumps the brakes on a nuclear detonation that, if “successful,” would have given the Andromeda strain all the radioactive fuel it would’ve needed to wipe out life on Earth. Sure, the ending’s a bit of a cliffhanger, but The Andromeda Strain’s overall message is straightforward: take a breath, people, we have a plan.

Biggest twist moment: The lab’s auto-defense system kicks in, starting a countdown to nuclear self-destruction… just at the moment when the tide was beginning to turn in humanity’s favor.

The day is saved: Dr. Hall navigates the lab’s laser-equipped defenses, reaching a control panel just in the nick of time to halt the bomb’s countdown timer.

Available: Amazon Prime


A virus-infected monkey is smuggled into the U.S. from Zaire and infects a California lab worker… and then gets released into the wild. The government is keeping the truth under wraps in PR damage-control mode while  the world’s virus-fighting brain trust scrambles to find a cure. Enter Outbreak, Wolfgang Peterson’s 1995 reimagining of how humanity would mobilize to thwart the spread of an Ebola-like threat. Boasting an all-star ensemble cast, the film was pioneered as one of modern sci-fi’s big-budget popcorn thrillers, making it a perfect watch when you don’t want to fall completely down the rabbit hole and forget, after all, that you’re here for the entertainment.

Yes, key characters perish in Outbreak and, like any good thriller, humanity’s survival isn’t guaranteed until the last minute, when Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) puts his butt on the line to save the residents of Cedar Creek from the military’s overzealous attempt at containment. But in the end, the good guys win, the city is spared, and — thanks to the good work of brainy CDC scientist Roberta "Robby" Keough (Renee Russo), the antiserum to defeat the exotic Motaba virus finds its way into the right hands. Outbreak checks pretty much every box on the list of what we crave in a good big-budget movie spectacle, and for that, it rises to the top of our queue.

Biggest twist moment: In a gripping moment that dramatizes a famous passage from The Hot Zone — the 1994 Richard Preston book on which the movie is based — Dr. Keough accidentally pricks herself in the lab with a contaminated syringe.

The day is saved: Col. Daniels averts the destruction of an entire city by convincing the flight team to detonate a bomb out over the Pacific — instead of directly over Cedar Creek.

Available: Netflix

I Am Legend

This is when things have deteriorated past the point of no return. With the obligatory “OMG” moments that often precede scenes of panic in the streets, just about every virus movie is a candidate in this category. But sometimes the best way to appreciate all the mass hysteria is to zoom in on the personal drama of a single good tragedy — and for our money, nothing’s harder to sit through than watching U.S. Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) choking his own dog in I Am Legend. (Bear with us, the optimism is coming.)

Sure, shows like The Walking Dead have all but inured us to mercy killings that involve infected people. But seeing Sam, Neville’s loyal German Shepard companion, go out like Old Yeller… well, it hit us in places we never thought a pandemic movie could. Yes, it’s an unparalleled loss and it makes our eyes sting — but that just makes it all the sweeter and more poignant when Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan) finally make it to the survivors’ camp and hand over the cure. So raise a paw for Neville and for Sam, a good doggo who got a raw deal: you’ll always be remembered, buddy… and you definitely didn’t die in vain.

Biggest twist moment: Neville risks it all by plowing his SUV through waves of Darkseekers… only to end up stranded, upside-down, and face-to-face with one at the edge of a pier.

The day is saved: Neville makes the ultimate sacrifice, dying in a grenade explosion he sets so that Anna and Ethan can escape the Darkseekers.

Available: Amazon Prime


Contagion would have been lost without its girl-powered trio of disease-fighting researchers, and each had a huge role to play. Between the three of them, Doctors Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), Erin Mears (Kate Winslett), and Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) save the day through a ton of self-sacrifice and an all-hands-on-deck dedication that eventually yields an effective cure.

Working from different points across the globe in director Steven Soderbergh’s cross-cutting story, Mears, a CDC investigator, helps identify the source of the pandemic before she herself catches the disease and dies. But her findings spark a chain reaction that leads to Hextall developing a vaccine from a weaker form of the MEV-1 virus and selflessly injecting herself to prove it’ll work. Orantes, meanwhile, tracks down the pandemic’s patient zero (Gwyneth Paltrow as the deceased Beth Emhoff) in Hong Kong — and gets kidnapped and held as ransom for her efforts. Removing any one of Contagion’s three female brains from the equation would have spelled an even bigger disaster than the millions of deaths the MEV-1 virus incurred. But thanks to their three-pronged attack and Hextall’s ingenuity, humanity was left with a vaccine that put the pandemic in its place.

Biggest twist moment: Watching Chicago descend into lawless chaos as people defy the quarantine.

The day is saved: Dr. Hextall throws all caution to the wind and injects herself with the first cure sample.

Available: Hulu+Cinemax; Amazon Prime

World War Z

Brad Pitt risks it all to test an experimental vaccine in World War Z… and actually lives to get the credit for his heroism. After all, what’s the good in saving the world if you can’t stick around to bathe in all the sweaty glory? As former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane, Pitt skirts the stereotypical behind-the-scenes heroism of a nerdy lab researcher — you know, the guy who’s safely bunkered away playing with test tubes while the action heroes fight it out on the front lines — and puts his metaphorical money where his mouth is.

Gerry ducks and dodges from one zombie-infested near miss to another on his throat-clenching race toward a cure for the virus that’s turning everyone. It’s enough that he nearly kills himself when he grenades an undead stowaway on an airplane, but that’s not even his biggest heroic highlight. Out of options and forced to make a judgment call when he realizes he’s the only one standing between a final-boss zombie and the chance at humanity’s inoculation salvation, Gerry rolls the dice and injects himself with an unknown virus that makes the undead ignore him. Bold strategy for sure — but it’s one with a big payoff. Gerry clears a path to the zombie-masking pathogen, the World Health Organization follows his lead, and the Lane family reunites as the good guys start laying a much-overdue smackdown on the zombie hordes.

Biggest twist moment: In Wales, Gerry blasts an airplane with a grenade, killing the stowaway zombie… but also knocking himself out for three days.

The day is saved: After injecting himself with the vaccine, Gerry realizes the cure is real when the zombies stop pursuing him.

Available: Amazon Prime, Hulu+Live TV

This story presents some humorous responses to coronavirus, but COVID-19 is very real! Please exercise caution out there: wash those hands, keep them away from your face, and practice social distancing. For extensive information on how to keep you and your loved ones safe, check out the CDC’s coronavirus website.