We were bubbles in a dangerous time: How movies can guide our pandemic choices

Chris Knight looks to the cinema for lessons on how to create the perfect two-household bubble

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee star in John Hillcoat's The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulizter Prize winning novel. Macall Polay

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Loneliness and isolation are themes you can find in the movies as well as just about every corner of the real world these days. As citizens practice quarantining and social distancing, many of us have a distinct sense of what it’s like to be Tom Hanks stranded on an island in Cast Away, Will Smith inhabiting a deserted city in I Am Legend, or Sam Rockwell living in a lunar outpost in Moon.

But with the gradual re-opening of society comes the concept of bubbling. They’re called double bubbles, family cohorts, virtual households or two-household bubbles, but the concept is the same — whatever group you’re isolating with now (spouse, child, cat, etc.) can decide to get within the two-metre social distancing limit of another group.

That group must, of course, decide to do likewise. And the bubbles must be mutual — you can’t have one bubble with a neighbour who also has another bubble with someone else. But while the notion of an expanded social circle may be appealing, it also seems like an idea ripe for emotional fallout, including hurt feelings, jealous relatives, even family feuds.

Thankfully, the movies are once again there to offer advice, or at least a mirror. There’s never been a film about the precise concept of social bubbling — although Michael Bay seems intent on making one in real time — but many have touched on the notion of figuring out who to spend time with in times of crisis.

“Family first” seems like a good rule to follow. In 2009’s The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Viggo Mortensen and a young Kodi Smit-McPhee play an unnamed father and son making their way through a wasteland after an unspecified cataclysm. Grimly emotional, it celebrates parenthood at its most primal, and ends on a note of sublime hope.

Thankfully, the movies are once again there to offer advice, or at least a mirror

The family in 2015’s Into the Forest is two sisters, believably portrayed by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood; the two actors were acquainted before they made the movie, and spent months hanging out together to prepare for the roles. Nell and Eva are living with their single dad (Callum Keith Rennie) in a remote west-coast forest home when the power goes out, then the internet and radio. Rumours from the nearest town suggest the worst, and so the sisters — their dad leaves at some point — decide to hunker down together and make the best of it.

As told by Canada’s Patricia Rozema, the story honours the bond of siblinghood, but there is tension in the woods. Nell’s boyfriend arrives one day, heading for the east coast and suggesting she come with him. Later, another intruder traumatizes what has become a peaceable routine of existence. It’s a stark reminder that we have to deal with other people, bubble or no.

It Comes at Night illustrates the potential rewards and dangers of inviting others into your family circle during a pandemic.

It Comes at Night from 2017 is not a perfect piece of filmmaking but it does illustrate the potential rewards and dangers of inviting others into your family circle during a pandemic. Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo star as Paul and Sarah, a couple struggling to survive with their 17-year-old in the wake of a highly contagious plague. In the opening scene we see them almost tenderly dispatching and then burning the body of Paul’s dad, who has caught the disease and will certainly spread it if nothing is done.

Spotting a stranger trying to break into their house, they capture him. He says he was just looking for water, and at Sarah’s insistence they decide to let the man and his own wife and son move in with them. Safety in numbers, she reasons, as long as the numbers aren’t too big — it could almost be a catchphrase for these times.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults, who went on to make Waves in 2019, tries for a horror vibe but proves far more adept at handling the social dynamics of two families trying to merge under one roof. There’s a great mealtime scene in which Paul lays out the house rules; imagine the awkwardness of telling some dinner guests you don’t know very well that you’d like them to remove their shoes, not leave the baby gate open, jiggle the toilet handle so it doesn’t run on — except these guests will also be moving in with you.

John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane, by Paramount Pictures.

Families can come together bound by nothing more than happenstance and convenience, as in the 2016 thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane. Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, knocked unconscious in a car crash just as she hears news about something bad happening in several major cities. When she wakes up she is a prisoner of Howard (a delightfully unhinged John Goodman) in his underground bunker.

He says he saved her from a chemical attack that has rendered the outside world deadly. Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who came to the bunker of his own free will, backs up this account. But for Michelle, as for the viewer, not everything adds up. And who wants to be forced to be part of a bubble?

Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes to find London devastated by a virus in the motion picture, 28 Days Later.

A much more functional ersatz family can be found in 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s stab at post-apocalyptic horror. Bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in hospital, four weeks into a pandemic that has killed or zombified almost everyone in Britain. Attacked by infected humans, he is rescued by fellow survivors and winds up in the company of Selena (Naomie Harris), cabbie Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns).

The resulting road trip to Manchester lets the group bond, and Boyle creates a weird mix of tension and relaxation, like a picnic in the park but with the underlying threat of danger and contagion. You know, just like real life.