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The Filmed-in-Quarantine Movie Is Hollywood’s Newest Genre

The entertainment industry has long tried to react to significant moments in history. And now, through films like ‘Host,’ ‘Locked Down,’ and ‘Malcolm & Marie,’ it’s reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic—with varying degrees of success.

Ringer illustration

While it’s unclear what the future holds for movie theaters when we’re on the other side of the pandemic, Hollywood has figured out how to adapt with the times. Plenty of delayed blockbusters (Fast 9, Top Gun: Maverick, and No Time to Die, to name a few) are ready to hit screens at a moment’s notice; various productions have resumed with safety precautions, including one that’s fallen under the intensely watchful eye of Tom Cruise; and enough artists got bored idling about at home during lockdown that they’ve essentially created a new genre altogether.

Quarantine movies—be they films about the COVID-19 pandemic or ones shot and released during lockdown—have inevitably sprung up from an industry looking to wrestle with, and capitalize on, the collective experience that’s shaped our lives over the past year. Hollywood has always tried to reflect and react to significant moments in history: Plenty of movies and TV shows either directly addressed or alluded to 9/11, including Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. Go back a little further and you’ll find countless examples of films playing off of Cold War anxieties (Dr. Strangelove) and the Vietnam War (Apocalypse Now). Cinema, like the rest of the world, doesn’t exist in stasis.

But these movies are unprecedented because of the absurdly quick turnaround time: They’re being scripted, financed, and produced so fast that they’re being released while we’re still dealing with a pandemic. Not all quarantine movies are made with the same intent. Some releases directly address life in lockdown, and others have used pandemic-induced limitations as creative license to try new things. While none of these films will be the next King Lear, they’re interesting artifacts all the same.

On the tasteless end of the spectrum we have Songbird, a thriller released in December that imagines a dystopian future where lockdowns are still commonplace in 2024 and a newly mutated “COVID-23” has a mortality rate above 50 percent. The film follows a bike courier named Nico (played by Hot Archie himself, KJ Apa), who has a rare immunity to the virus, which allows him to roam the desolate streets of Los Angeles. Songbird’s plot kicks into gear when Nico tries to rescue his girlfriend, Sara (Sofia Carson), whose possible exposure to the virus means she’ll be placed in a vaguely described “Q-zone” from which people never return.

The tone-deaf sensibilities of a pandemic thriller being predicated on a young couple flouting quarantine guidelines notwithstanding, Songbird doesn’t bring anything new to the table. You have to look only at the Michael Bay producer credit to understand what kind of audience the film is trying to cater to. It is exactly the type of mindless, brash spectacle that fits Bay’s MO, minus the filmmaker’s propensity for explosions. But even on the merits of shutting off your brain for 90 minutes, Songbird fails to deliver the base thrills that made the Netflix action movie Extraction a welcome bit of silly escapism in the early days of the pandemic. All Songbird will be remembered for is being exploitative and trashy.

Quarantine-inspired genre efforts aren’t a bad idea on principle, though. With the right approach, they can even be downright ingenious. Host, a summer release from the horror-centric streaming service Shudder, creates terror from something that’s become a familiar quarantine staple: Zoom. Director Rob Savage, whose inspiration for Host came from a hilarious viral video in which he pranks his friends (and soon-to-be stars of the project) by faking a zombie attack in his attic, centers the movie on a Zoom séance gone wrong. Six friends representing different quarantine archetypes—the girl who regrets moving in with a significant other, the girl who went back to live with her dad, etc.—treat the séance with a relatable level of skepticism. But in disrespecting the spirits, they invite something sinister into their homes.

Like the underrated Unfriended and its sequel, Host works best when viewed on a laptop: The entire film captures the Zoom desktop aesthetic so authentically that I found myself trying to move the on-screen cursor more than once. The feeling that you’ve somehow intruded on an actual Zoom call is, obviously, a lot more unsettling once mysterious thuds and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it demonic entities interrupt proceedings. The scares, too, are fiendishly spun out of this setup: At one point, a character spams the chat because her face is repeatedly being smashed into the keyboard. That Host ends with Zoom notifying the participants that they’ll need to upgrade if they want more time on the call shows that Savage has made the most of his film’s COVID-imposed difficulties, instead of being hindered by the constraints. It’s no small feat, but with Host, the quarantine era has its own Blair Witch Project.

The limitations of quarantine are also at the heart of Doug Liman’s Locked Down, a fascinating but flawed hybrid that pivots from a pared-down study of a fractured relationship into a heist film halfway through its running time. The first half of the movie packs in plenty of detail about its soon-to-be-divorced leading couple: Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a delivery-truck driver with a penchant for reading poetry, and Linda (Anne Hathaway) is a high-level executive for a luxury fashion company she loathes. While a bickering couple and a diamond heist sound rather boilerplate on the surface, Locked Down’s script is injected with weirdness courtesy of Steven Knight. Knight is, for better or worse, one of the most singular and go-for-broke screenwriters we have—capable of bona fide hits like Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders, as well as entities like the Apple TV+ series about a blind Jason Momoa, and Serenity, one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen.

There’s a subplot where Paxton discovers that their backyard has opium poppies, and he uses them as a sleep aid before vomiting his insides out the next morning; when Paxton is tasked with doing deliveries under a pseudonym because he has a criminal record, his God-fearing boss (played by Ben Kingsley) gives him the name “Edgar Allan Poe”; Ben Stiller shows up as Linda’s CEO only to get owned in the background of a Zoom call by his teenage son. Locked Down’s shortcomings as a genre exercise are most apparent when we get to the heist, an anticlimax that feels as hastily put together as the production itself. Linda and Paxton want to seize the opportunity to steal a haul of diamonds worth 3 million euros from a Harrods department store because it’ll be minimally staffed; but in practice, that means the couple spend most of the “heist” picking up food for an impromptu picnic and flirting in elevator rides. Liman, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from thinking outside the box—for his next film, he’s straight-up going to outer space with Tom Cruise. But Locked Down is indicative of why a movie of this scale doesn’t work under the pandemic-stricken circumstances. It’s right there in the title.

The best thing that can be said about Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie, the Sam Levinson–directed two-hander filmed over the summer, is that it’s a quarantine movie that’s not actually about quarantine. Instead, the spotlight is on Malcolm (John David Washington), a filmmaker who just released a new movie to rapturous praise, and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), who he forgot to thank at the event, and whose previous struggles with addiction inspired his film. Shot on black-and-white 35mm film, Malcolm & Marie’s intentions are clearly spelled out, and no doubt played into the bidding war that Netflix ultimately won for $30 million: This is a prestige quarantine movie with award season pretensions.

Handsomely shot as it is, though, Malcolm & Marie is all style and no substance. Levinson’s script is quick to go on tangents about his own industry-related grievances—namely, that critics don’t understand his work. (A “white lady from the L.A. Times” is repeatedly mentioned with particular scorn.) The poor optics of using a fictional Black director to vent his own frustrations notwithstanding, Levinson gets caught up in the kind of inside baseball details that won’t matter to anyone outside of the denizens of Film Twitter, some of whom might actually like the critics he’s clearly railing against. Malcolm & Marie is a waste of an intriguing idea—putting two talented actors in a confined space and letting them go off because they have nothing better to do—that gets lost in its own navel. Thankfully, with the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations already out of the way, this flawed awards bait isn’t getting any biters.

As the most high-profile representatives of the quarantine movie genre, Songbird, Host, Locked Down, and Malcolm & Marie run the gamut from clever, opportunistic productions to shamelessly exploitative. Assuming society returns to normal when a majority of the populace is vaccinated, the four movies will serve as a fascinating time capsule of a strange era of filmmaking. By the time we get the inevitable Serious Awards Movie about living through the pandemic, it’ll likely be filmed under normal circumstances that don’t inspire A-listers to yell at crew members about keeping their masks on.

But as the novelty of making and releasing a movie in quarantine wears off (some of the premises, like Locked Down, are already starting to feel outdated), all that matters is the execution. It’s oddly fitting, then, that the best made-in-quarantine movie didn’t get the stamp of approval from Michael Bay or try to sneak its way into the Oscar race, but instead was born out of an up-and-coming horror filmmaker messing around with his friends on Zoom. I can’t think of anything more emblematic of the quarantine experience than that.