Until last year, if you wanted to watch a global pandemic unfold before your eyes, you had to turn to the movies. Even then, there weren’t many options: The on-screen pandemics took various forms, from the alarmingly realistic (Contagion) to the historical and allegorical (Death in Venice, The Seventh Seal) to the supernaturally apocalyptic (28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Dawn of the Dead). But the list of movies that attempted to depict a world in which the outbreak of a new pathogen reshaped life as we knew it was surprisingly short. For the bulk of the COVID-19 crisis, those who sought to watch something that might reflect their experience had limited options, and most of them involved zombies.
Now, of course, more or less everyone on earth has seen firsthand what life looks like when a pandemic unfolds. Accordingly, there’s more to watch about that experience, too. Even though we’re still living through the COVID-19 crisis, the past few months have also brought the pandemic to our screens, including in a handful of films that premiered at last week’s all-virtual SXSW.
The burgeoning genre of “COVID film” is still developing, but there are already common threads in the current offerings. Most of them are set in the early stages of the pandemic, and they tend to draw on certain themes—the eeriness of finding yourself too close to an unmasked stranger, the endless Zoom calls, the cathartic banging on pots and pans to honor frontline workers, the emotional exhaustion of not knowing how long it would last, the wondering if Tom Hanks were going to live or die. Most of them are comedies, though the mix includes a handful of horror films, a sci-fi thriller (the Michael Bay–produced Songbird), and the occasional experimental arthouse-style drama (including the SXSW film Ayar). Two of them—the glossy HBO Max feature Locked Down, starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and the decidedly more low-budget SXSW premiere The End of Us—begin with essentially the same conceit, about a couple on the verge of breakup who end up forced to live together as the pandemic begins. (In Locked Down, the duo eventually plot to use the quarantine confusion to steal a diamond from London’s famed Harrods department store, while The End of Us is more mumblecore in its characters’ ambitions; the boyfriend wants to write a screenplay.) More than anything, though, the main thing that all of the first wave of pandemic films have in common is a certain scrappiness—they’re all projects created by people who wanted to make something during this time, and in order for them to be ready for audiences now, they weren’t able to endlessly workshop a script or meticulously plan out their preproduction.
The End of Us is one of the first feature films shot entirely during the pandemic. The crew started rolling in mid-May 2020, wrapping on June 1—which means that the film, which roommates and codirectors Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner began conceiving with producer Claudia Restrepo in late March, went from a rough idea to in the can in just two months. The fast-paced production timeline means you can make a movie that audiences can watch while the pandemic is still very much on everyone’s minds. Whitney Call and Mallory Everton cowrote and starred in Recovery, a road movie about a pair of sisters who drive across the country as part of a scheme to break their grandmother out of a nursing home before their COVID-denying sister gets to her. The pair started writing the first draft of the feature just eight weeks before codirectors Everton and Stephen Meek completed a rough cut to submit to SXSW. “For us, the superpower was speed,” Everton told me. “We had to make this fast. We didn’t want to make a COVID movie and then apply to festivals in 2022. So it was either we go for this, or we don’t.”
That’s not, traditionally, how filmmaking has worked. For most of film history, making a movie—even an independent film—has been expensive and time-consuming, and most filmmakers don’t want to devote the resources it takes to a feature they haven’t agonized over getting right. But with so many jobs lost or on hold during the early stages of the pandemic, time became a less precious commodity, and crews and equipment were less in-demand. “All of the other job opportunities were drying up, so suddenly we had all this time and didn’t have the excuse that we had other work,” Restrepo said. “It was a blessing and a curse that it allowed us to be like, ‘Well, we literally can’t do anything else.’” That same principle applied to other resources—The End of Us was able to affordably rent an Airbnb to film in (normally something Los Angeles–based rental owners require heaps of extra cash for), while the Recovery crew rented a process trailer at a steep discount to capture difficult car scenes.
The result is a bunch of films that come off a little more like pencil sketches than finished works of art. The majority of films in this early slate are comedies, because it’s easier to come up with jokes quickly than it is to do the deep emotional processing that would allow for, say, a bittersweet drama. There are practical COVID concerns as well: The crew size is smaller on a comedy set primarily in one location than it is for genre films, which helps with social distancing measures. Comedies are also cheaper—even Locked Down, as a studio picture, cost a tiny fraction of what its director, Doug Liman, normally commands for action movies like Chaos Walking or Edge of Tomorrow. In the tradition of pulp novels, these movies are made for the moment, rather than with the expectation that they’ll be lasting works of art. And that raises an important question: The mere existence of these films is noteworthy, but are they any good?
Your mileage will vary, and may depend on your experience over the past year, but there were things I liked in most of them. The End of Us made me weirdly nostalgic for the strangeness and solidarity of the early part of the pandemic; Recovery has a clever conceit and the funniest pandemic jokes of the lot; Ayar is admirably experimental; the performances from Hathaway and Ejiofor in Locked Down are filled with a manic energy that captures something essential to the feeling of last spring. I asked Selome Hailu, an Austin-based critic who wrote about COVID features at SXSW for the film website Letterboxd, if she thought there was a benefit in seeing these films that, in ordinary times, might have remained a loose idea in someone’s notebook.
“I like that people aren’t all trying to make their masterpiece that’s going to outlive them,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m going to make a movie that works right in this moment, and people are going to see it now, and that’s what I care about.’ That’s something that doesn’t really happen in film very often.” She also brought up the way that debut filmmakers—which the directors of Ayar, The End of Us, and Recovery all are—often get stuck in their heads on making a first feature. There’s something to be said for using extra time, stimulus checks, and equally bored friends to get started on a dream that the filmmakers might otherwise talk themselves out of pursuing, even if the products themselves are uneven.
It would be a mistake to assume that the first COVID features are meant to be definitive or even enduring statements on the pandemic. Locked Down, Songbird, and all the films that premiered at SXSW—along with however many COVID features are currently sitting on an editing suite somewhere, or about to be dropped onto a streaming service—are all being made without the benefit of hindsight or perspective. The past year has been an ongoing trauma, and it’ll take time for filmmakers to process what they’ve been through, find something to say, and figure out the best way to say it.
Those movies will come eventually. But Alison Willmore, a film writer for Vulture who’s written extensively about how the past year has shaped what we watch and how we watch it, told me that she’s in no hurry to see them. “It’s okay if it doesn’t happen immediately,” she said. She compared this first wave of pandemic features to the first movies about 9/11, films like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. “There was a rush of movies directly about it, and none of them have staying power,” she said. What did work for her? “The one I think about a lot is Cloverfield, which is absolutely a nine-eleven movie that is also a monster movie.” Eventually, in movies ranging from Cloverfield to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia to Marvel’s The Avengers, filmmakers reflected on the world changed by the attacks in less direct ways than simply showing us plane crash or Iraq War images over and over again. That’s healthy, Willmore says. “Do we want, like, a Fauci biopic? I don’t feel like that’s necessarily going to do anything for me in terms of processing my experiences through art.”
It’s fair to say that these early entries in the COVID film canon are not likely to be the best movies anyone ever makes about the pandemic. We’re still living it—how could they be?
Even the filmmakers themselves seem less interested in creating something for posterity than in simply making movies that felt real and true to them in the moment. Everton told me of making Recovery, “We’re very aware that we did not have any context. Like, zero context. It’s impossible to get away from the fact that this movie was made by people with pandemic brains.” But if that just makes her movie one of the first in a longer chain of films that do get us to deeper truths and richer explorations of the past year, that’s all right by her. “I’m excited to see what people make with context. I’m jealous of the people in the future who will know what people want to see, because we didn’t know that. We were just in it.”