You can't argue with Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2020: the obvious, accurate "pandemic." But when I think back on last year, the word that stands out is surreal. It's what "we reach for when reality threatens to overwhelm us," NPR wrote in a 2013 story about how the media describes mass shootings and other tragedies, going on to use the adjective in a sentence uttered by a hypothetical disaster witness: "It was surreal … like a scene in a movie."
So what happens when you reverse it, when a scene from a movie is as surreal as real life?
Such is the experience of watching The Pink Cloud at Sundance, written by Brazilian writer-director Iuli Gerbase in 2017 and filmed in 2019. The film's thought experiment asks what would happen if a toxic cloud descended on the planet, trapping everyone where they were caught … for literally years. But it is no fault of Gerbase's that her quarantine premise doesn't feel very novel anymore: The Pink Cloud illustrates the distinctive and growing divide between sci-fi disaster movies made pre- and post-pandemic.
During the early days of the outbreak, movies were one of the only reference points for what we were living through. Interest spiked for films like 1971's The Andromeda Strain, 1995's Outbreak, and 2011's Contagion. It was only a matter of time, though, before people started to notice all the things disaster movies got wrong. We panic-bought toilet paper, not food. Deaths mounted gradually, not all at once. No one ever had to shoot their zombie dog.
Today, the pandemic is no longer "surreal"; it's the dull monotony of our life. We are so intimately familiar with quarantine and social distancing and R numbers that we won't require a panicked scientist to explain the concepts to us in the exposition. Hollywood has already altered its course to account for the outbreak, like with the movie Songbird, which imagines a future where COVID-19 mutates into something even worse.
The Pink Cloud didn't have the same benefit of hindsight; written three years before lockdown was a global reality, it focuses on how a casual fling becomes a long-term relationship when circumstances force a couple to live together. Gerbase gets more right than she gets wrong: the virtual therapy, internet exercise classes, and communicating with neighbors via window messages. But she couldn't have anticipated the raw emotions that we're fluent in now: the dread, the boredom, the dark humor, the conspiracies. The result is a noticeable disjointedness between the imagined strain of isolation and our expertise with it.
Like spaceflight and the invention and popularization of the home computer, we've now lived through a science-fiction scenario that previously we'd only been able to experience in fiction. In that sense, The Pink Cloud is a special — and soon to be extinct — genre of movie, because it does something we'll never be able to do again. It asks a question we can't un-learn the answer to: What if?