At the beginning of the pandemic, Contagion topped the streaming charts. Viewers felt compelled to watch, and in some cases repeatedly rewatch, a movie about the outbreak of a fictional pandemic during a real lockdown. Some have said watching fictionalized disaster play out can relieve our tensions about the global catastrophe.
It was too close to the bone for me, and yet at the same time, too hopeful. (The whole pandemic is done within a year in Contagion — vaccine included.) Instead, I was drawn to another film from the 2010s.
Monsters is a Lovecraftian rendering of our present state of danger.
Monsters is an alien invasion drama that slowly builds dread and horror by methodically removing every hopeful route out of the chaos. There are none of the dramatic explosions or jubilant victories you’d find in other alien invasion movies like Independence Day or Mars Attacks. It focuses on the micro:the terror of two ordinary people out of their depth, the pointless tragedy of the death of innocents, and the corruption of nature spilling across borders. Monsters is a Lovecraftian rendering of our present state of danger.
The movie starts with a shot that hints at a disastrous ending. Our two leads, a cynical journalist and the sweet daughter of a press baron, are attempting to escape from Mexico to the United States as an alien threat spreads outwards from the Infected Zone that divides the two countries. Their increasingly desperate journey pushes them straight into danger as they attempt to cross the Infected Zone and make it over the gigantic border walls erected to stop the alien invasion.
Six years before the refrain of ‘build the wall’ was taken up by Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters, director Gareth Edwards (Rogue One, Godzilla) examined the fear of “invasion” from the USA’s southern border, recasting it as a gigantic Cthulian lifeforms surge northwards.
2020 is distinct from Monsters and Mountains of Madness in one important way.
Monsters draws on a long tradition of dread-invoking sci-fi, perhaps best epitomized in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story At the Mountains of Madness. Like Monsters, it's the story of a journey. Where Edwards has his characters attempting a risky voyage to reach the sanctuary of home, Lovecraft sends his characters into the frozen heart of Antarctica to unwittingly unleash disaster.
Like Monsters, Lovecraft it starts by revealing the ending — something awful is waiting for us at the end of the story. Each subsequent paragraph ratchets up the tension for the reader, carefully laying out the topography of the frozen Antarctic landscape, the drilling equipment that will unleash the danger, and the pride and hubris of the crew. Terror is built not by spectacle but by inching closer to the characters’ doom.
Both Monsters and Mountains focus on the fear of nature becoming corrupted. The unleashing of ancient horror from under the ice, the infection of trees with alien DNA. The coronavirus is no different. Even now, the virus is mutating again in Europe, with mink, bred for fur, having contracted COVID-19 and then spreading the new strain back into the people of Denmark. Many were quick to suggest that the disease is the fault of humanity pushing nature too hard. The destruction of habitats, factory farming, humanity’s relentless grasping quest for more has brought this illness upon us like a curse. An op-ed in The Guardian from members of the WWF, the UN, and WHO warned that this latest coronavirus is a wake-up call to fix our relationship with the natural world or risk even more frequent zoonotic pandemics.
For now, we find ourselves trapped in a slowly unfolding disaster. Here in the UK, I am living through a second national lockdown. The British population and media seem inured to spiraling case numbers and hundreds of our people dying each day. Former footballer-turned-conspiracy theorist David Icke screams at protests that it must be a Cthulhu-esque conspiracy run by lizard people.
In America, though there is renewed hope for a science-led approach to the pandemic thanks to Biden and Harris’s election, the pandemic is peaking again in Georgia and New York. We are treading a perilously narrow path, attempting to keep the fabric of the world as we know it intact as we lurch closer and closer to disaster.
And while I am consumed with dread, 2020 is distinct from Monsters and Mountains of Madness in one important way: we don’t know the ending yet. We still have the collective strength and knowledge to make it through this disaster.
Until then, at least we have sci-fi to get us through.