'Pandemic': Film Review

Courtesy of XLrator Media
Immunity is likely to be widespread.

Rachel Nichols, Missi Pyle and Mekhi Phifer attempt to face down the emergence of a deadly virus in John Suits’ medical thriller.

Ebola, SARS and now Zika — outbreaks of new viral diseases have become almost commonplace, but true global epidemics remain rare, for the time being, anyway. Pandemic, however, imagines a contemporary scenario characterized by the rapid and widespread proliferation of a deadly virus with the potential to completely disrupt the foundations of human civilization. Intentionally limited in scope, the latest feature from low-budget director and producer John Suits adopts the POV visual style of first-person shooter video games and will probably appeal principally to a similar audience, both in theaters and on digital platforms.  

Dispensing with any type of comprehensive setup, the film opens in the midst of a viral pandemic sweeping the nation during 2017, as Dr. Lauren Chase (Rachel Nichols) arrives at a Los Angeles medical compound to provide fresh support to the beleaguered holdouts. The insidious and ultimately lethal pathogen has already wiped out New York City, transforming the sick into raging cannibals intent on taking out anyone remaining immune to the disease. After outfitting Chase with a biohazard suit and camera-equipped helmet, grizzled Dr. Greer (Paul Guilfoyle) explains the scope of the threat in lengthy expository installments while detailing her mission.

Tasked with locating and retrieving survivors stranded within the city, Chase is assigned to an armored school bus and teamed with a Navigator (Missi Pyle), a Wheeler (Alfie Allen) who drives the rig and an armed Gunner (Mekhi Phifer) providing security. Greer directs them to a school building that’s sheltering survivors under attack by hordes of infected victims, unaware that Chase’s principal motivation on the recon remains reuniting with her husband and daughter, stranded by the disaster somewhere in the vast Los Angeles suburbs.

Traversing near-deserted city streets into the heart of downtown, their bus sustains repeated attacks by the crazed contagious as well as desperate immunes, hoping to be transported to the compound where the least-afflicted can be treated with some hope of recovery. Others remain resigned to their fate, rampaging through city neighborhoods in a complete state of anarchy. At the school they find only corpses before being ambushed by a huge group of the infected. After losing track of Gunner and Wheeler, Chase and the Navigator must devise a plan to rescue the doctor's daughter and make it back to the compound without transportation or security assistance before succumbing to either the virus or its ravaged victims.

Writer Dustin T. Benson’s first produced screenplay runs more toward a near-future medical thriller than an apocalyptic catastrophe epic, perhaps out of necessity to accommodate Suits’ low-budget framework. Benson substitutes tense character dynamics for major set-pieces, in particular by pitting most of the principal characters against Chase, who struggles with Wheeler and Gunner to take control of the team and guide their mission. Pandemic might not deal explicitly in zombie lore, but narrative and thematic similarities to the likes of The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and perhaps most resoundingly George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead are clear, even if the film doesn't achieve similar levels of realism or gravitas.

Although Suits doesn’t skimp on the gore during critical action segments, the production’s frequent reliance on commonplace practical sets and overly familiar locations in downtown L.A., including numerous sequences shot on Skid Row, may detract from the impression of an appropriately devastated metropolis. The film’s chief stylistic device involving the helmet-cam POV perspective necessitates technical and visual limitations that are sometimes interesting, but not especially original or impactful, particularly when the filmmakers bend the rules to accommodate specific shots.

Similar constraints also hamper the castmembers, since they're infrequently depicted without the helmets that safeguard them from viral contagion. Fortunately, Benson raises the stakes by introducing an unexpected twist shortly after the midpoint that shifts the characters’ motivations, requiring them to occasionally remove their biohazard suits. Nichols (Chicago Fire, Continuum) attempts to adopt an attitude somewhere between shell-shocked survivor and sympathetic physician, but doesn’t manage to fulfill the role’s potential. Phifer’s part is more elemental as the hard-bitten soldier, although he teases out some nuances as the plot progresses. As an ex-con seeking some glimmer of redemption driving the rescue bus, Allen (Game of Thrones) displays layers of complexity that the script only belatedly explores, while Pyle remains underutilized in a sidekick role.

Distributor: Xlrator Media
Production company: New Artists Alliance
Cast: Rachel Nichols, Alfie Allen, Missi Pyle, Mekhi Phifer, Paul Guilfoyle, Pat Healy
Director: John Suits
Screenwriter: Dustin T. Benson
Producers: Gabriel Cowan, John Suits
Executive producers: Damiano Tucci, Danny Roth, Michael Tadross, Jr., Randy Wayne, Curtis Raines
Director of photography: Mark Putnam
Production designer: Yong Ok Lee
Costume designer: Bruna Mebs
Editor: Nicholas Larrabure
Music: Alec Puro
Casting director: Sara Wallace

Not rated, 92 minutes