The United States is the world’s pandemic worry child. President Biden wants to enforce vaccination as Covid continues to flare up, Republicans are digging in the sand in the name of freedom. The debate has been thoroughly politicized, and there is great mistrust in vaccines. Does Hollywood have anything to do with that? I don’t mean the handful of celebrities from California’s naturopathic school who are openly anti-vaxers. But movies.
Recently, there has been some commotion about antivaxers who have been playing the post-apocalyptic thriller since December 2020. I Am Legend 2007 as a prophecy, actor Will Smith therefore decided to advocate vaccination. In the film, as a lone scientist in a deserted New York, he desperately searches for a cure: humans have mutated into zombie vampires. And thanks to the Covid vaccine, some antivaxers believe. The film is even set in 2021!
It’s just a movie, argues the other side. and no, I Am Legend takes place in 2012. In spectacular films about a zombie calypse or pandemic, vaccines are never the cause of the disaster at all, but are often the solution. In the horribly prophetic Contagion (2011), a heroic scientist tries a promising vaccine on himself when a bat virus paralyzes the world. In Outbreak (1995) scientists are brewing a vaccine against an Ebola virus in a race against time. Scientists are heroes: Will Smith who sacrifices himself, Brad Pitt who in World War Z (2013) injects itself with pathogens as a cure for zombie attacks.
So hurray for Hollywood? Well, sometimes a scientist is indeed the hero, but organized science is much more often the cause. For some time, manipulated viruses have been very popular. In I Am Legend The zombie calypse follows experiments with Krippenvirus, a manipulated measles virus that is supposed to cure cancer. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) Humanity is perishing when Big Pharma messes with the Alzheimer’s designer virus ALZ-113, in 28 Days Later (2004) a virus upgraded into a bioweapon escapes from a defense lab. Hollywood films inspire little trust in government, scientific research or the pharmaceutical industry.
In her book published in 2019 Anti/Vax: Reframing the Vaccination Controversy Bernice Hausman discusses how high-profile movies play into the hands of antivaxers. Not so much to call Hollywood into censorship, but in its plea not to preface antivaxers as wappies who cannot be reasoned with. According to her, their fears are rooted in a widespread mistrust that films reflect and feed – selling paranoia. Movies in which organized science and government bring the rescue, such as in Contagion, are scarce.
Two years of pandemic has not lessened that distrust. What about that Chinese lab in Wuhan and ‘gain-of-function research’? What do we know about those RNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna? And that behind all that scientific rumble is a sinister billionaire like Bill Gates hiding? Hollywood wouldn’t make it any other way.
Coen van Zwol is filmrecensent.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of September 15, 2021