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kottke.org posts about Scott Z. Burns

The Implausible Covid-19 Movie

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post interviewed Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the screenplay for Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s film about a bat-borne illness that starts a global pandemic. What’s most striking about the interview is how outlandish Burns finds certain aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, so ridiculous in fact that people would find them implausible if this were a fictional story.

I would have never imagined that the movie needed a “bad guy” beyond the virus itself. It seems pretty basic that the plot should be humans united against the virus. If you were writing it now, you would have to take into account the blunders of a dishonest president and the political party that supports him. But any good studio executive would have probably told us that such a character was unbelievable and made the script more of a dark comedy than a thriller.

On Twitter, director Sarah Polley recently had a similar take.

This is the worst movie I have ever seen.

Unsurprising that this movie doesn’t work — the screenplay was a dog’s breakfast.

So much heavy handed foreshadowing. The apocalyptic footage from Wuhan, the super villain American president, the whistleblower dying, the Russia/China border closed while people still claimed it was just a flu, the warnings unheeded. Insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

And then — that most annoying of horror/disaster movie tropes — the hapless idiots walking into disaster after disaster, all of which the audience can see coming from a mile away.

The over the top details of world leaders and their wives falling ill, the far fetched idea that industrialized countries wouldn’t have proper protective gear for front line workers and ventilators. Pleeeeaaase. This movie needed a script doctor.

It’s interesting that there are certain boundaries in fiction related to the audience’s suspension of disbelief that are are routinely ignored by reality. I’m also reminded of how Margaret Atwood approached The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, using only elements that have historical precedent:

The television series has respected one of the axioms of the novel: no event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.

And yet some critics consider the events from the novels and TV show to be too much, over-the-top.

Update: Ted Chiang from a recent interview:

While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also — and perhaps mostly — a grotesque political satire.

I am currently blazing through Exhalation (Kindle), Chiang’s collection of science & technology fables. (via @jasondh)