"Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (Twentieth Century Fox)
On that awful day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, when we were all transfixed by the horror unfolding on live TV, a woman standing near me remarked: “I wish Harrison Ford could come and save us from this.”
The desire for a screen hero needed no explanation. We watch movies as a means of escape from the world, while also looking for positive action against its many threats and dangers — the current one being the raging coronavirus.
Yet while actor Ford has played many heroes, Indiana Jones and Han Solo among them, the movies have also taught us that humanity is its own best saviour.
Time and again on the big screen, in the 132 years that there have been motion pictures, the inhabitants of planet Earth have been called up fight a colossal menace.
They’re searching for the proverbial happy ending, a quest which is as true in life as it is in movies. And the happiest screen endings of all, I think, are the ones where the triumph isn’t against fantasy figures like space aliens or super villains or phantoms, but rather when it’s against a plausible natural threat, be it a global virus or an approaching giant meteor.
Here are a few of my favourites in that regard, and huge spoiler alert: I’m going to give you the good-news endings.
These films are still great to watch — you can see all or part of them on streaming services or YouTube — even if you know how they turn out. And at a time like this, isn’t knowing that a happy ending is coming a good thing?
“Panic in the Streets” (Elia Kazan, 1950): This bleak noir thriller finds a New Orleans public health doctor (Richard Widmark) and police captain (Paul Douglas) on the trail of people who came in contact with a gangland victim who died of pneumonic plague, a form of bubonic plague. Our heroes have just 48 hours to stop the chain of transmission — which includes a villain played by Jack Palance, in his screen debut— before it infects the entire city.
Happy ending: The good guys win and the city is saved.
“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (Irwin Allen, 1961): This may be Hollywood’s first global warming blockbuster. When a meteor pierces the Van Allen radiation belt surrounding Earth, the planet’s temperature rises alarmingly, melting polar ice caps and scorching forests, threatening extinction of all life within three weeks. Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), an intrepid scientist and nuclear submarine designer, seizes on a bold plan: to fire an atomic missile from his sub at the overhead inferno from the Pacific Ocean, in a risky bid to extinguish the ring of fire — but the UN’s skeptical chief scientist (Henry Daniell) aims to stop him.
Happy ending: after dodging pursuers, a giant squid and an attempt on the admiral’s life. Nelson and his crew save the day.
“Armageddon” (Michael Bay, 1998): Skywatchers have warned us that a stray meteor could strike Earth. Sure enough, a boulder the size of Texas is headed our way, and the impact — in about 18 days’ time — will result in biblical-level calamity, unless it can be diverted or exploded. With no time to train astronauts to become deep-core drillers and explosives experts, NASA instead transforms seven roughnecks — including characters played by Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis, Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi — into astronauts, sending them aloft to blow up the errant boulder.
Happy ending: Kaboom! (The good kind.)
“I Am Legend” (Francis Lawrence, 2007): A virus developed as a cancer cure mutates into a bug that kills 90% of the world’s population and turns most of the rest into vampire zombies. There’s slim hope in the person of Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), a brilliant former U.S. Army medical doctor and scientist, who is immune to the disease and attempting to concoct a cure for it. With only his dog Sam for company, he barricades himself into his Manhattan home and laboratory, venturing out during daylight hours to scrounge for food and search for other immune humans.
Happy ending: Neville succeeds, in the nick of time.
“Contagion” (Steven Soderbergh, 2011): This pandemic thriller has become the most-referenced film during the coronavirus crisis, and with good reason — it’s chillingly realistic. The title plague is caused by a bat/swine hybrid virus, unwittingly brought home to Chicago from Hong Kong by a business traveller (Gwyneth Paltrow). Her sudden death is followed by a wave of infections, mass quarantines, government bungling, conspiracy theories and a race for a vaccine.
Happy ending: A vaccine is successfully created and deployed, as we all hope happens with COVID-19.
(This story was originally published in the Toronto Star on March 26, 2020.)