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How Sci-Fi Treats Pandemics

Seven sci-fi apocalypses to help you wait out COVID-19

Just this morning I meandered over to the grocery store to pick up bread. A crowd of people poured out the door with shopping carts overloaded with bottled water and jumbo packs of toilet paper. Everywhere I go, it seems like people are preparing for the end of the world—or, more likely, a quarantine due to uncertainties around COVID-19 (Coronavirus).

One thing for sure, all those doomsday preppers, at whom we silently rolled our eyes years ago, are now crackin’ a secret smile. Never mind, I thought on the way out, clutching my loaf of bread and pint of non-dairy ice cream: “If us sci-fi buffs get stuck inside for a few weeks, we’re going to need more than fizzy water and disinfectant. We need food for the mind too! How about a suggested sci-fi binge list, to keep our minds occupied?”

So, without further ado, here are five sci-fi stories featuring pandemics, to binge on during a quarantine or otherwise:

The Invasion (2007) “As a Washington, D.C. psychiatrist unearths the origin of an alien epidemic, she also discovers her son might be the only way it can be stopped.” (IMDB) What better way to start off a list of sci-fi pandemics than with this classic remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 hit, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While I’m certain many would argue that this film isn’t worth its weight, I disagree.

28 Days Later… (2002) “Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary.” (IMDB) This classic film helped pave the way for modern sci-fi zombie thrillers. Before I Am Legend (2007), before The Walking Dead (2010–), before World War Z (2013), and before Zombieland there was 28 Days Later…

12 Monkeys (TV series, 2015–2018). “Follows the journey of a time traveler from the post-apocalyptic future who appears in present day on a mission to locate and eradicate the source of a deadly plague that will nearly destroy the human race.” (IMDB) Now hold your horses. I know what you’re thinking: “But what about the classic 1995 Bruce Willis movie version?” I definitely recommend you give that a watch too. However, when it comes to binge-watching, nothing will satisfy the urge more than the 12 Monkeys TV series. I will refrain from saying more. Trust me, this show speaks for itself.

The Last of Us (2013, video game). “In a hostile, post-pandemic world, Joel and Ellie, brought together by desperate circumstances, must rely on each other to survive a brutal journey across what remains of the United States.” (IMDB) Just because something is a video game doesn’t mean it’s not worth a binge. The Last of Us isn’t just a sci-fi thriller about zombies and apocalyptic survival, it also does an incredible job at character building. Not interested in playing through the game? No problem, you can watch the remastered game movie at YouTube. (4 hrs, 47 min+)

Children of Men (2006) “In 2027, in a chaotic world in which women have become somehow infertile, a former activist agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea.” (IMDB) I saved the best for last. It is not technically a “sci-fi” pandemic film in the sense that it is based on a 1992 novel of the same name by British mystery novelist P.D.James, but it can certainly be seen that way. If you’re not familiar with Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, you should be. Children of Men takes place in a world where women have suddenly and inexplicably become infertile. As a student of philosophy with a love for classical art, I find Children of Men an absolute work of beauty. This film merges the imaginative nitty gritty landscape of a post-apocalyptic world with introspection. If you’re a fan of philosophy or classic art, you will absolutely love this one.

While more films could definitely find their way onto this list, this is a good place to start. So, whether you are in quarantine or just lounging around at home this weekend, you’ll definitely have no shortage of sci-fi thoughts on pandemics to hold you over.

On a serious note: COVID-19 greatly impacts the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. My thoughts and prayers go out to anyone at risk and especially to anyone who may have lost a loved one.

If you find yourself stuck indoors and viewing the world through the silver screen, here are some of Adam Nieri’s other recommendations and reflections, brought to you by Mind Matters News Sci-Fi Saturday:

2019’s Best and Worst Sci-Fi TV: 2019 featured many sci-fi television and movies that were less sci-fi than political narrative. In 2019, I fell out with Netflix. I felt bombarded by more and more edgy content, as though Netflix wanted me to know how “adult” it is. Rather than producing a few amazing originals, Netflix started vomiting up a ton of terrible originals.

Ad Astra: The Great Silence becomes personal. The film images the fate of those who seek significance in the stars and may well wait indefinitely. In a world where the divine touch of extraterrestrial intelligence doesn’t elevate human existence to any level of significance, we are left with Ad Astra: a slow, methodical decay of human significance.

Alita, Battle Angel A Mind Matters Review: If you love anime and felt betrayed by the flop of Ghost, I would highly recommend Alita.

Another Life All fun and games till an AI falls in love. Then it descends into a convoluted drift of uncertain storytelling. And the victim is not primarily the viewer, who has other options. The victim is the art itself.

Dirty Machines: Short time travel flick exceeds expectations
A Mind Matters Short Film Review: A tense soundtrack, intriguing ending, and thoughtful stylistic choices make Dirty Machines: The End of History a thoughtful exploration of a logically tricky subject. Now, if the director can just resist the temptation to get woke…

The Expanse: A Mind Matters TV Series ReviewThe attention to detail and the realistic portrayal of space set it apart from run-of-the-mill sci-fi. I love the deep mystery surrounding the show’s central narrative device, the proto-molecule. It is somewhat sentient and is desperately trying to figure out what happened to the civilization that created it and was then wiped out while it lay dormant in our solar system for millions of years.

The Expanse, Season 4: The Best So Far? A Mind Matters Perspective: Unlike critic Zac Giaimo, I preferred Season 3 but it really depends on what you are looking for. Season 4 is, as critic Giaimo notes, integral to character building and plot development for the overall series. I gave it 9/10 in an earlier review. However, I don’t know if I completely agree with Giaimo’s Amazonian optimism. Season 3 set up urgent questions that should be answered by the end of the show, preferably beginning in Season 5.

The Feed—A Mind Matters TV Series Review: I started out thinking that the show was just the usual ho-hum tyrant-AI-takes-over flick and it is so good to be wrong! Imagine a world where your mind is stored on social media. Now, what happens if someone steals, then abandons it? What will you do?

Her (2013): If you created her, is it real love? In this retrospective Mind Matters movie review, Adam Nieri ponders the questions raised by a thoughtful AI film. Unlike Catherine, Samantha is exactly what Theodore was looking for. No surprise there; Samantha is, literally, adjusted and updated according to Theodore’s preferences from when he initially began speaking to her. She exists only to be Theodore’s soulmate. Is that enough?

How To Become Human—A Mind Matters Short Film Review. This new film turns a conventional sci-fi storytelling premise upside down. Rather than an AI struggling to become human in a human-dominated world, we watch a human struggling to be more like an artificial intelligence in an AI-dominated world.

Lost in Space, A Mind Matters TV series review. I was skeptical at first, based on Netflix’s track record, but was pleasantly surprised. If I could rewind time a week and add a piece of 2019 sci-fi to my list of the year’s Best and Worst Sci-Fi TV, I would add Netflix’s Lost in Space, Season 2—which came out just after I had published. Let’s fix that now.

Love, death, & robots Despite the trash and ruined expectations, several shorts were enjoyable and downright fun to watch

Nightflyers: A Mind Matters TV Series Review Despite its flaws, Nightflyers does not deserve all the criticism it received. It’s the saga of a ship of scientists making their way through the cosmos to unlock the secrets of a mysterious entity known as Volcryn. It turns out that Volcryn is not the only mystery; the good ship Nightflyer holds many of its own secrets.

The Outer Worlds—A Mind Matters Game Review: You must discover the dark secret of the Halcyon space colony, despite the greed and corruption of a handful of powerful corporations. After the raging dumpster fire that Fallout 76 (2018) turned out to be, I hesitated to invest my time and money in another role-playing game (RPG) epic. But I am glad I did.

Picard (2020): Episode 1 Is an AI-Themed Mystery. The mystery is related to another familiar Star Trek character. Seeing the Star Trek universe from a different perspective—that is, not from the interior of a starship—was super refreshing and rewarding. It gives viewers a unique look at what day-to-day life is like for other people (much as The Mandalorian did for the Star Wars universe).

Star Trek: Picard — On second thought, some serious quibbles. Now that I’m four episodes in, I’ve gotta say, the “haters” might be onto something. Not everything but something. Why does Picard seem to be obsessed with Commander Data? And what happened to The Federation? Star Trek fans are quick to point out that Star Trek: Picard takes an unnecessary malevolent tone towards The Federation. Why do the Romulans look different? I’m still watching but I’d like some answers.

Simulation: Would a simulated universe even make sense? A well-crafted short sci-fi film suggests, intentionally or otherwise, maybe not. I’ve seen quite a few sci-fi short films over the years and Simulation is certainly one of the better ones. However, beyond that, I’m not sure this film knows what it is; it’s an identity crisis.

Sprites: Will plausible robots replace movie stars? A short film prepares us to think about it.

Tales of the Loop: Pushing the boundaries of the possible. Simon Stålenhag’s captivating post-apocalyptic landscapes remind us that the world could, at any time, be different from what we think it is. Science fiction, as an art, has always meant to inspire. It’s meant to push the boundaries of the possible. And Stålenhag’s world isn’t just different, it’s unique.

Terminator: Dark Fate—A Mind Matters Movie Review. Aside from the fact that it felt like a retextured version of Terminator 2, I was constantly being reminded of the film’s obvious political agenda. Movies like Terminator: Dark Fate  don’t seem to be made by people who care about the narrative. They seem to think that they need only make something that looks like a movie but acts as a medium for broadcasting their message to the masses.

Also, a defense of science fiction fans: Does science fiction encourage narcissism? As a sci-fi critic, I think most fans are just looking for a genre where they can understand and be understood. It’s true that many people who are attracted to science fiction feel like outcasts or disconnected from mainstream popular culture. And many of them feel welcome, loved, accepted, and validated in the sci-fi community. Does that really make them narcissists?

Adam Nieri

Adam Nieri has interests in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind and he holds an MA in Science and Religion from Biola University. He has background in social media and marketing, photography/graphic design, IT, and teaching.

How Sci-Fi Treats Pandemics