This time last year sucked.
With COVID-19 vaccines not yet available and pandemic misinformation still simmering, infection rates continued to rise, disrupting holiday traditions and indoor gatherings, along with the comforts they reliably provide.
Among those missing pieces was going to movie theaters to see the year-end blockbuster releases and Oscar contenders — practically all of which were delayed to deep within 2021. Hope persisted that the moviegoing experience would return in a responsible, comfortable-ish manner before long, but precisely what awaited attendees onscreen was another matter.
The likes of Dune and No Time to Die would eventually be among the options, but what about the inevitability of films that take place within the pandemic and directly grapple with its conflicts? Were audiences ready to cinematically contend with a public health crisis that had upended their lives and, to many, felt far from over?
By the end of 2020, viewers had already been given a taste — well, maybe more of a nibble. Co-produced by Michael Bay and starring Demi Moore, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, and Paul Walter Hauser, the 2024-set “COVID-23” thriller Songbird suggested that dramatic handlings of the pandemic, as well as filmmaking in a socially-distanced world, had a long way to go.
The handful of documentaries last year fared far better, suggesting a more reasonable path through the muck. Racing to be completed before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, works by Alex Gibney (Totally Under Control) and the team of Hao Wu and Weixi Chen (76 Days) methodically chronicled the year that was, spotlighting the heroes who dedicated their lives to counteracting the pandemic’s threats and the villains who tried to stand in their way.
These and other nonfiction efforts provided an important encapsulation of recent history and offered a renewed rallying cry against suffering and injustice, though ultimately served more as public services than great films. And though fictional grapplings with the ongoing crisis remained few, articles looking ahead to the 2021 movie year warned of narratives dominated by the pandemic.
The hand-wringing wound up being largely for naught, as only a few filmmakers chose to address the hot-button issue of the day, despite the 2021 Sundance Film Festival slate suggesting otherwise. Reporting on the fest’s virtual offerings, Angie Han predicted a continuing trend, noting that “the movies will do what they’ve always done, reflecting not just our reality but our hopes and fears and needs — and right now, that means they’ve been reshaped by the virus just as the rest of our world has.” She added that viewers would be wise to “get cozy, because pandemic cinema is here to stay awhile.”
With none of Sundance’s COVID films earning consensus acclaim and only one receiving an award — an editing prize for the documentary Homeroom — filmmakers weren’t exactly inspired to join the movement, and subsequent months proved similarly fruitless. And despite the rise in home-viewing options during 2020 that would conceivably serve as a pipeline for hyper-relevant fare with minimal box-office potential, few such projects arose.
Instead, the reopening of movie theaters lured much of the quarantine crowd from their shelters to screens dominated by the backlog of releases withheld from the previous year. Even with many theaters requiring masks and proof of vaccination, the return of the big-screen experience suggested the resumption of normalcy — heightened by those glorious pre-Delta-variant summer months when many indoor mask mandates were lifted — and in that enveloping comfort, viewers were far more interested in escapism with the Fast & Furious family than engaging with films challenging them to confront the pandemic.
Amidst this popcorn reverie, COVID-related projects that did hit the market were mostly met with shrugs, despite several narrative and documentary features making poignant observations about life in the viral landscape.
Set in London, Doug Liman’s Locked Down and Stephen Daldry’s Together explore long-term relationships that were on the outs prior to the pandemic, then put in a pressure cooker when quarantine measures were implemented in the U.K., forcing these couples to see each other more often than they’d like. Odds are good that you know or know of a romantic relationship put through the COVID wringer, and both films excel at rounding out this realistic core drama with additional relatable elements.
Locked Down makes witty use of society’s reliance on Zoom and derives head-nodding comedy from various technological glitches as Linda (Anne Hathaway) communicates with colleagues around the world. And in tandem with the coldness of screen life, writer Steven Knight sharply conveys the desire for genuine human connection, most poignantly when Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) walks out into the street and treats his “fellow inmates” to a memorized poem by D.H. Lawrence.
Confining itself to the home of its unmarried, unnamed partners (played by James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan) and their preteen son Artie (Samuel Logan), Together presents a series of monologues and two-handed exchanges that straddle the line between theater and film, emphasizing writing and acting over directorial flourishes. Though ambitious cinematography and elaborate setups aren’t the easiest to pull off in such tight, restriction-heavy filming environments, the characters’ direct camera addresses within beautifully lit and framed spaces — rounded out by just enough camera movements — warrant the cinematic presentation.
In this rich setting, viewers are treated to an authentic evolution of a relationship and how it’s impacted by close quarters, eliciting a rollercoaster of fondness and hatred between the partners, plus caustic commentary on the U.K.’s response to the pandemic. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, screenwriter Dennis Kelly gifts Horgan a memorable speech in the wake of her character’s mother dying from COVID — a cathartic lashing out at the negligence of the British government and society at large. This barrage against guilty parties is just the kind of direct, heartfelt wrestling with coronavirus woes that resonates with the millions of people around the world who’ve lost loved ones during pandemic, and proves downright therapeutic.
Less successful at incorporating the pandemic into its narrative is Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, despite being set amid a COVID-esque situation that requires protagonist Martin (Joel Fry) to test and quarantine before proceeding on his deep-forest scientific mission. Rather than comment on real-world concerns beyond a basic level, the minimal cast, sparse production, and no-frills technical aspects of Wheatley’s folklore horror suggest a filmmaker who primarily considered what type of work he could safely make within the pandemic, not its relationship to current events.
But leave it to Spike Lee to boldly go where few filmmakers dare. As he did with 9/11 (25th Hour) and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke), the director tackles the pandemic head-on in NYC Epicenters 9/11→2021½, his brilliant six-part HBO docuseries.
Incorporating a wealth of interviewees, Lee has each subject introduce themselves while wearing a mask, after which they remove the face covering for the remainder of the talk. The motif stresses the continued importance of working to impede the spread of COVID, while also giving a name and face to the people who made a difference during the past two years.
Such heroes include Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the scientists who developed the COVID vaccine; public officials like NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took the pandemic seriously and acted quickly; and famous figures who stepped up as community leaders — namely Jeffrey Wright, who organized efforts to support Brooklyn restaurants’ to-go services when indoor dining restrictions hampered business.
By taking almost a year longer than the first wave of documentarians to confront the pandemic on film, Lee benefits from hindsight and other artists’ mistakes, crafting the most potent cinematic rendering thus far. With features such as Judd Apatow’s The Bubble scheduled for 2022, more COVID-themed fare is definitely on the way, but while those works have the potential for even more inspired looks at a worldwide emergency with no end in sight, the pioneers that wrestled with its all-too-real aspects this year deserve a closer look.
The risks they took to be among the first widely distributed filmmakers to artistically process a painful chapter in human history could also shape how future artists depict tragedies. While advancements in technology, an increase in DIY and self-distribution models, and elevated competition encourage creations being shared quickly, a little breathing room can go far. But with the right idea, alert viewers will swarm, word will get out, and creators will be properly celebrated.