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Nobody saw summer 2020 coming. So how come it felt like the movies did?

There’s a reason this summer’s films felt like they were made for quarantine, even though they weren’t.

A man wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt floats in a pool drinking beer.
Andy Samberg in Palm Springs, a movie about a guy who lives the same day over and over again. Huh.
Courtesy of Hulu
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The movies of summer 2020 mined the horror of isolation, got way too real about life in quarantine, and demonstrated both the promise and limitations of pandemic cinema.

Palm Springs, released in July, was “perfect pandemic viewing” and the “perfect quarantine movie.” Early August’s She Dies Tomorrow was “eerily in sync with the country’s other-people-equals-death mindset,” a “pandemic movie of the moment.” The July release of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was a “pre-pandemic fever dream.” First Cow, re-released digitally after a few precious days in theaters in March, was “the perfect quarantine baking film.” Shirley, out in June, was in some respects “the ultimate quarantine movie.” By its conclusion, late-July release The Rental became “a brutal reminder that you should probably just never leave your house.”

Nobody, least of all anyone in Hollywood, could have seen the summer of 2020 coming. (Not even Steven Soderbergh, who surely couldn’t have anticipated that his pandemic thriller Contagion would shoot to the top of streaming charts nine years after its release.) But if you felt like every other movie that came out (digitally, of course) was made specifically for a time of loneliness, anxiety, and viruses, you weren’t alone. Comedies, biographical dramas, nonfiction, horror: It didn’t seem to matter what the genre was — they seemed made for our time.

But, of course, they weren’t. Movies usually take a while to make, and most of these films were already in the can at the start of 2020. Nearly all of this summer’s titles were finished months or even years before “social distancing” became ubiquitous. So when I saw First Cow at a festival way back in September 2019, I wasn’t thinking about quarantine baking — I was thinking of friendship, and capitalism, and clafoutis. When I saw Palm Springs in January at Sundance, I was laughing about its spot-on take on existential boredom, but I sure didn’t realize I’d soon feel as if I’d slipped through a wormhole, sentenced to repeat the same day of my life with no end in sight. I loved the way Shirley depicted the life of an agoraphobic author who wrote housebound horror, but actually being housebound and perpetually stuck in a horror film was not on my calendar.

So why did it feel like every movie — and not just those “quar-horror” films made and released in the period itself — was made “for this moment”?

A woman holds a cigarette with a half-smile on her face.
Shirley was a movie about a housebound writer of horror living through her own horror story. Hmm.
Courtesy of Neon

Back in 2015, when it didn’t feel quite so much like some fresh apocalyptic scenario was making headlines every day (have you heard about the forthcoming Election Day asteroid?), I was writing a book on apocalyptic pop culture. Prior to pitching the project with my co-author, I hadn’t thought much about the topic beyond knowing I enjoyed zombie movies and had liked Battlestar Galactica.

But in writing the book, I learned some things. One was that the word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, which means something more like “revelation” or “unveiling.” Apocalypses are not really the end of the world — though they can be the end of a world — so much as they are moments in which a curtain gets drawn back and we see reality more clearly.

I found myself thinking about that a lot as March’s lockdowns became April’s cabin fever became May’s claustrophobia boiled over into June’s civil unrest, unleashed by people who took to the streets, some seemingly for the first time, to call for justice after a man was murdered on camera. I heard people who normally don’t discuss certain topics — such as unfair gender divisions of labor, or the privilege of having a second home to which you can flee, or unequal access to food and internet connections — begin to talk about them. I noticed how some folks realized that designating low-paid, frequently low-respect jobs as “essential” felt like obfuscation, a euphemism that hid the truth about whose work and life we deem valuable.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its ensuing, widespread pleas to stay home and away from others, also brought the scourge of loneliness and isolation to the surface. It’s not that people weren’t lonely before, and it’s not as if screens weren’t occupying most of our attention, slowly taking over the way we interact with one another. It’s just that once the computer screen became the place to work, attend school, have a baby shower, throw a seder, watch a play, and read a stream of nightmare headlines, the need for in-person contact became obvious, even to introverts and homebodies who joked about how they’d been training for social distancing their whole lives. Almost overnight, the human need for contact and physical proximity became blindingly clear.

A group of people in red jumpsuits in a glass dome.
Spaceship Earth told the true story of a group of researchers who locked themselves in a biodome for years and weren’t able to leave. Sounds familiar.
Courtesy of Neon

Those revelations, and others, were available all along. Nobody can credibly claim ignorance. People have written libraries full of books and penned reams of articles and held hundreds of conferences on all of these injustices, crises, and existential concerns. But now they were right in front of our noses, inescapable parts of daily life.

And because movies so often reflect our collective anxieties — and because these anxieties were always present, even in the background — the movies that were already confronting loneliness and fear and boredom and inequality rang even truer.

The truth about our summer of movies that felt eerily relevant to circumstances nobody could have anticipated is just this: The ideas and situations we’ve been preoccupied with weren’t invented by the pandemic, they were hastened by it. That so many movies felt so resonant during our own current apocalypse — or, well, one of them — is evidence that the events we’re experiencing are heightened versions of a reality we already lived. They’re exacerbations of what was always there. Like any apocalypse, this pandemic is pulling back a curtain that was hung to hide uncomfortable truths, and plenty of artists had confronted those truths first. The question, as always, is whether we’re ready to listen.

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