Life imitates art in the world of COVID-19

7 mins. to read
Life imitates art in the world of COVID-19

Viruses are an inevitable part of life on this planet. We can only hope that the next time a pandemic hits, lessons will have been learnt from the catalogue of errors inflicted on us all during 2020, writes Tim Price. 

“Childs: Temperature’s up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.

MacReady: Neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.”

– Dialogue from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

The film director John Carpenter has had a long and prolific career. Although his first major release, 1978’s horror classic Halloween, was at the time the most successful independent film ever made, his subsequent output has enjoyed mixed results at the box office. Two of his films, however, offer eerie cultural parallels, both to 2008’s global financial crisis (GFC), and to that of today.

Carpenter’s 1988 science-fiction fantasy They Live stars WWF wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper as a drifter, John Nada, who stumbles upon a pair of special sunglasses that reveal the world for what it really is. Seen through the glasses, media and advertising extolling the virtues of conspicuous consumption actually turn out to be subliminal orders to obey and conform. Dollar bills, seen through the sunglasses, carry messages like ‘This is your god’.

In the film, society is split between an ever-widening underclass and a narrow, controlling elite – who just happen to be aliens in disguise. They Live has recently taken on a second life on Twitter, in a pastiche 2020 makeover sequence in which Nada puts on the glasses for the first time. That iconic government message asking us all to ‘Stay at home / Protect the NHS / Save lives’ is suddenly revealed as an altogether starker message: ‘LIVE IN FEAR’.

Another poster, inviting us all to ‘Clap for the NHS tonight at 8pm’ is revealed in alternate form, saying simply, ‘REPORT YOUR NEIGHBOURS’. In its original depiction of a society of 99% ‘have-nots’ ruled by an alien 1% of ‘haves’, the film is a sparky critique of free-market Reaganomics. In its latter-day satirical adoption by social media, it’s practically a documentary of our times. Given the chasm in societal wealth that opened up in the aftermath of the bailouts from the GFC, They Live now looks less like a B-movie with attitude and more like an economic forecast from the likes of the Adam Smith Institute.

For many of his fans, myself included, Carpenter’s magnum opus is 1982’s The Thing. Adapted from the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., the film tells of a shape-shifting alien entombed in the Antarctic and thawed out by an unlucky Norwegian research group. The Thing subsequently makes it to a US research base on the remote continent, where it starts to take over the inhabitants, one by one.

The special effects of The Thing are shocking even by today’s standards – more shocking given that they represent the ‘last hoorah’ of a time before CGI imaging techniques. So, all the gore you see on the screen is actually there, in front of the camera, rather than having been conjured up digitally by a computer. In perhaps the film’s most notorious sequence, one of the US scientists suffers a heart attack; during an attempt to resuscitate him, a gigantic set of jaws snaps shut within his chest; his head then detaches itself from his body and sprouts legs like a spider. It is probably the gruesome overkill of the effects that detracted from the film’s initial commercial success; either that, or the fact that the film’s release was overshadowed by the blockbuster arrival of a rival and more benign alien in the form of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extraterrestrial. Also, cold nihilism rarely sells.

But The Thing still packs a punch, and in its portrayal of cold-war paranoia and an almost palpable sense of mutual distrust, it is the perfect allegory for our age today.

Trust, of course, is the glue that binds human society, so it is all the more alarming to see just how many of our institutions have discredited themselves over the course of 2020. James Forsyth, for example, writing for The Spectator on 25 April, made the following observations about the scientific ‘community’:

“Cabinet members have been taken aback by the disagreements among those now advising the government. One minister remarks, with a note of shock, that ‘scientists are as bitchy a bunch as lawyers’ and that ‘there are a lot of people who want Whitty’s job’, a reference to the chief medical officer Chris Whitty. Another notes: ‘The Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] committee members don’t even agree with each other, they bicker. And we talk about following “the science” as if there’s one opinion and not at least seven”.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has not shown our politicians, health service or mainstream media in the best of lights either. The British Cabinet revealed just how badly its members lack practical expertise in the STEM subjects (namely science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The less said about the dubious provenance of Professor Neil Ferguson’s software model, the better. And all those daily government press conferences have shown extremely vividly just how unfit for purpose most of our broadcasters and journalists are. The phrase ‘population density’ has never seemed more appropriate.

And in the meantime, the spread of the novel coronavirus has blown the most massive hole in the public finances. And let it be clear: the virus is not the ‘black swan’ here. The ‘black swan’ is the appallingly amateurish way that our respective governments have responded to it. Viruses are an inevitable part of life on this planet. We can only hope that the next time a pandemic hits, lessons will have been learnt from the catalogue of errors inflicted on us all during 2020.

It would, then, be difficult to come up with a screenplay as shocking or as implausible as the real-life development of the Covid-19 crisis. Governments throughout the world have offered an object lesson in how not to respond to a pandemic. The mainstream media has hardly helped – showering politicians with hysterical unsolicited criticism, while ghoulishly focusing on national fatality numbers that cannot realistically be compared with each other. Perhaps the final word this month should really go to the film actress and director Sarah Polley who contributes the following ironic Twitter thread as a ‘review’ of the coronavirus:

  • This is the worst movie I have ever seen.
  • Unsurprising that this movie doesn’t work – the screenplay was a dog’s breakfast.
  • So much heavy handed foreshadowing. The apocalyptic footage from Wuhan, the super-villain American president, the whistle-blower dying, the Russia/China border closed while people still claimed it was just a flu, the warnings unheeded. Insulting to the audience’s intelligence.
  • And then – that most annoying of horror/disaster movie tropes – the hapless idiots walking into disaster after disaster, all of which the audience can see coming from a mile away.
  • The over the top details of world leaders and their wives falling ill, the far-fetched idea that industrialized countries wouldn’t have proper protective gear for front line workers and ventilators. Pleeeeaaase. This movie needed a script doctor.
  • This movie even tries to cram in a political agenda – an on-the-nose critique of what capitalism looks like at its worst. States competing for ventilators, the rich sheltering in lovely places while the poor are trapped or still at work in unsafe environments.
  • And the dystopian angle of this movie? The elderly have become so disposable that young people still get together and party? No matter how bad the world is, no one could believe we could ever get to that point.
  • I don’t know who approved this script. I don’t know who thought it was in shape to be released. People are just desperate for content I guess.
  • I don’t often say this, or believe it, but this movie really needed to choose its genre. Horror movie? Political? Disaster? Screwball comedy? It’s just trying to do too many things at the same time.
  • I also think it was a strange choice for this movie to not focus on the only potentially interesting main protagonist. That bat in China. Every other character is totally passive.
  • The way they are marketing this movie is even more laughable, though perhaps the closest thing to the truth. “At its heart, this movie is a love story.”

About Tim

Tim Price is manager of the VT Price Value Portfolio ( and author of ‘Investing Through the Looking Glass: a rational guide to irrational financial markets’.

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