DOASKDOTELL REVIEWS of films dealing with avian influenza or other natural pandemics  (Fatal Contact; Pandemic, Fatal Error, The Summit)

ABC showed a television film Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" (2006, Touchstone, dir. David Pearce) on Tuesday May 9, 2006 at 8 PM EDT. The title of the film is an accidental play on other film titles (“Fatal Attraction” “Kids in America”). A pandemic starts with a businessman returning from Hong Kong, and he becomes "the index case." (Although the epidemic had really started in Gwandong province, China). Joey Richardson and Stacey Keach (as the Health and Human Services secretary) star. (This film is not yet listed in  “It won’t be so bad. Or will it?” The film was difficult to watch. It portrays avian influenza in humans as like the superflu in Stephen King’s The Stand. Victims bleed out as if they had Ebola. There is an autopsy scene that looks like it came out of Quentin Tarantino’s “Hostel.” It is not entertaining (it isn’t supposed to be) and has no suspense. The smallpox film above, based on a terror rather than natural scenario, was much more effective dramatically. The screenplay conveyed a great deal of “information” (with rather hastily drawn characters, including a female scientist and the governor of Virginia).  This is typical big network TV movie-making; would people really buy tickets to watch this in a theater? One observation is how quickly society as a whole becomes decimated by paralysis and shortages and falls apart. People starve in quarantine camps, which even incorporate NYC subway stations. Life insurance companies go bankrupt. (I wonder what happens to mutual companies, owned by the policyholders.) Society itself is like a living organism, a colony, like a Portuguese Man-o-War. Okay, this is the worst case scenario. Most likely the virus could not be so lethal with a high percentage of people infected, and would lose virulence if it became human-to-human transmissible (as with the 1957 and 1968 pandemics; I got the 1957 flu at age 15 and was sick for a week, with my nasal passages swollen shut for four days; now I would have residual resistance to similar viruses). But the whole setup raises troubling questions about our whole philosophy of personal autonomy, which can be blown away if we ever let things get out of control, as in this film. A screenplay based on a milder outbreak might make better film, as it really would raise questions about personal ethics. Should public activities be shut down (with enormous economic ruin) to protect the most vulnerable if only a small percentage of people die? (Would the industry that produced this film survive?) There is no excuse for our letting this happen. We can solve our problems with vaccine manufacture and get the job done.

Toward the end, the epidemic seems to be dying down and life is returning more to normal (which would be problematic), when a second wave with 100% fatality gets started in Angola, where person’s may be weakened already by HIV. 

Pandemic (2007, Hallmark / RHI / Larry Levinson, dir. Armand Mastrioanni, 170 min, PG-13)  A 19-year old Californian, while hiking and surfing in Australia, becomes ill in an area where dead birds are found. He gets on an Icelandic flight to Los Angeles, becomes ill, and dies in flight. The passengers are quarantined at LA (although the CDC first refuses to call it a quarantine, instead calling it "active intervention"). Step by step, the virus, worse than the Spanish flu of 1918 (it seems to be still a new virus, not just H5N1 as known so far, but a fictitious strain called H3N7 to which the public has even less immunity; the disease is called the "Riptide Flu"), spreads through LA from this one index case. But a drug kingpin was on the flight and led a breakout from quarantine, contributing to the epidemic.  It's not likely that it would really happen this way.

The clinical course of this fictitious flu is horrific, with coughing up blood, and the lungs liquefying, and something like a 20% mortality rate, with the young and strong the most vulnerable (as with Spanish flu).

The film starts walking through the science, and for a while people naively believe Tamiflu could save them. The drug Cotoxin is presented as the antidote instead. Faye Dunaway (from "The Starlet" -- "don't call us, we'll call you") is the governor, and she is a bit of a pill, quarantining the entire city of Los Angeles from the rest of the world and then imposing formal martial law. (When the law is only words, it doesn't work, she says.) As the bodies pile up, they are thrown into mass graves just as in the Holocaust.  

Finally, there is sunshine. A treatment is devised from the anti-bodies or immune cells of people who have recovered from tuberculosis; The cells prevent the virus from attaching itself to cells in the respiratory tract.

The style of "storytelling" and movie showmanship is rather trite and stereotyped. 

A great line to a fibbie: "Don't you ever get tired of talking to yourself?" Answer. "No. I'm my own best company!"

ABC “Nightline” had a “fact or fiction” presentation that evening (May 9, 2006). See   

There is an unrelated but similar novel by Daniel Kalla called "Pandemic". An episode of NBC’s “Heroes” on Nov. 5 also presumes a pandemic in 2008.

Fatal Error (1999, Artisan / Lionsgate /Ver Zerneck / Stephanie Germain, dir. Armand Mastrioanni, novel by Ben Menzrick, 99 min). This is sort of a variation of "The Ring". Here, people watching particular web-tv broadcasts from a Seattle company called Digicron, about to announce a new complete product for home Internet, get infected through their eyes with a computer virus that can also infect humans and cause their cells to calcify quickly. It starts with a meeting of seven lawyers hooked up to a rival in Australia. In the meantime, virologist Jack Baldwin (Antonio Sabato Jr., who was on the TV series "Earth 2"), is working as an emergency tech after getting fired for breaking rules. He gets on to this to track down the virus and the villain virus writer. The end reminds one of a scene from "V".  Sabato, his forearms shaved, looks as though he had been disinfected and scrubbed permanently for all future surgeries as part of MRSA infection control.  A related concept occurs in a novel by "The Trojan Project" by Edmund Contoski, link here.

The Summit (2008, CBC / Sfatesburg / Powerfilm /ION, 180 min, dir. Nick Copus, Canada) imagines terrorists infecting people with HIV and then live smallpox vaccines from a corrupt pharmaceutical company, and sending them to a G8 summit. Blogger.

Robin Cook's Virus;  Outbreak

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