The outbreak of Ebola that has killed almost 900 people in West Africa has revived our ongoing and periodic fears about the spread of unusually lethal diseases. It also echoes with our pandemic-obsessed popular culture, which is nearly as fond of killer viruses as it is of totalitarian governments. This summer has brought us another installment of this fascination in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the second movie in the resurrected franchise. But the best film on the theme remains Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” the rare movie that recognizes that real life is more disconcerting than almost anything fiction writers could dream up.


Andy Serkis as Caesar in a scene from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. via Associated Press)

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is about the lead-up to an epidemic, while “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is set in its aftermath. As is so often the case with post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, the franchise is not really interested in how people make decisions during crises or in identifying the moments when crises become irreversible.

And though the catastrophe that lays low humanity between the first film and the second is a disease, its ravages all happen off-screen. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is consumed with both medical experimentation and interpersonal (and inter-ape) disputes that end with a new contagion about to jump from one continent to another by means of an international flight. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up after the disease has done its deadly work: The only humans left alive are those who are immune to the so-called “simian flu,” preoccupied instead with restoring electricity.

That same premise of immune survivors of a plague guides “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s hit zombie drama. In the pilot for that series, sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up to find the world has changed dramatically around him. The early drama of the show is simply in Rick’s shocked acclimation to the depopulated neighborhoods and choked highways that he encounters when he awakes.

“The Walking Dead” skips the process of trying to prioritize between many pressing human needs. Instead, Rick and the other survivors he meets must accommodate themselves to the idea that just because something looks human does not mean it still merits human compassion.

“Outbreak,” the 1995 virus thriller starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo and Morgan Freeman, is from a more hopeful era of action movies, when Hollywood heroes still had a chance to head off the sort of apocalypses that would succeed in the decades to come.

Like disaster pictures including the comet movies “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” “Outbreak” traces the emergence of a potential disaster — in this case, a disease that resembles Ebola and is spread by contact between monkeys and humans, and from human to human — and the response.

“Outbreak” spiced up the threat of a virus with a subplot involving government interest in biological weapons and a faction that wanted to bomb a quarantined town. But these obstacles mostly exist for our heroes to pit themselves against: The bigger the ordeal, the more impressive their displays of competence. The bombing is averted, doctors develop a cure and the apocalypse is at bay for another day.

“Contagion” is the rare movie to be interested in the spread of and response to disease, and to acknowledge that the results may lie somewhere between full victory and the end of human existence.

Its characters include doctors who work in the field (Kate Winslet), the lab (Jennifer Ehle) and in the bureaucracy (Laurence Fishburne), an epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) and a general (Bryan Cranston). All of their work ends up being critically important to developing a cure for the disease that kills millions of people around the world: Heroism is not a matter of sole effort, but of many little battles and many frustratingly small victories.

“Contagion” is also interested in the sorts of fears that have motivated suspicion of the medical volunteers infected with Ebola who were brought back to the United States to be treated with an experimental serum. A grieving father (Matt Damon) quarantines his young daughter, afraid that she has not inherited his immunity.

Anti-science thinking shows up in the form of a conspiracy-minded blogger (Jude Law) who exploits public terror and impatience for a cure to profit by pushing a pseudo-scientific purported remedy. The scale of his perfidy is smaller than that of the conspiracy in “Outbreak,” and in an environment where a false link between vaccines and autism is widely believed, much more frightening.

When Hollywood kills off the vast majority of the world off-screen, it can be easy to lose track of the stakes. When our heroes succeed too easily, we risk arrogance. But as “Contagion” reminded us, there is more pain to go around when most of us survive to reckon with the consequences of our decisions — and those choices really do belong to all of us.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.