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HBO’s ‘Last Cruise’ reveals the ‘Diamond Princess’ as floating metaphor for the whole pandemic

The new documentary explores the luxury cruise that harbored an early COVID-19 outbreak, and how it anticipated all the class issues that followed.

HBO’s ‘Last Cruise’ reveals the ‘Diamond Princess’ as floating metaphor for the whole pandemic
[Photo: courtesy of HBO]
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What did Armando Iannucci know and when did he know it?

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On January 19, 2020, Iannucci, the creator of Veep, launched a new HBO series called Avenue 5, set on an interplanetary space cruise that ends up holding its passengers against their will for much longer than intended—and with dwindling supplies. One day after the show premiered, the Diamond Princess cruise ship left the port of Yokohama, Japan, and quickly became the first major COVID-19 outbreak site beyond China, keeping its passengers on board for several weeks longer than planned. Just as Iannucci’s Veep seemed to anticipate the chaotic incompetence of the Trump era, his follow-up series appeared to anticipate the tragic event that ushered in the pandemic era.

Just over a year later, a new documentary directed by Hannah Olson, The Last Cruise, which premieres on HBO today, reveals how everything that happened aboard the Diamond Princess predicted much of what would follow back on shore in America—especially as it pertains to issues of class.

The beginning of the film plays like Kate Winslet’s character in Titanic recollecting the impressive nature of the ship. We see grand ballrooms, an in-house movie theater, and scrumptious-looking food in seemingly unlimited supply. It’s like an ad for how awesome cruises can be, culled from footage the passengers shot themselves. On February 3, 2020, however—the final scheduled day of the cruise—the captain ominously announces that a Hong Kong resident who had been traveling aboard the ship tested positive for the coronavirus. An investigation and further passenger screenings would inevitably have to follow.

“As you can see, ladies and gentleman, the situation is under control, and therefore there are no reasons for concerns,” goes the announcement. It wouldn’t take long at all before the inherent falseness of that statement would be tragically obvious.

Much like the COVID-19 documentary 76 Days, which also chronologically begins on January 20, the doc shows how quickly an outbreak can intensify and how hard it is to contain. Unlike 76 Days, however, which takes place mainly inside a Chinese hospital where medical professionals risk their lives to treat patients, the focus of The Last Cruise quickly shifts to those who risk their lives to help others through no choice of their own.

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It’s not just the passengers who were documenting their experience on the Diamond Princess. A dishwasher stealthily films the areas of the ship where he’s not allowed to be while guests are inhabiting them, giving a flavor of the upstairs-downstairs tension on board even before the coronavirus portion of the cruise. Of course, the difference between passengers and crew becomes vastly clearer as soon as panic sets in. At this point, the crew realizes they are essentially expendable.

“We felt like only the rich would be taken care of,” one crew member recalls.

While the crew remains responsible for assembling and delivering thousands of meals per day once the passengers are quarantined inside their cabins, a passenger shoots complaint-filled videos about the food itself, as though her slightly stale dessert were Fyre Fest fare. Soon enough, the crew is conscripted into helping out with medical issues in close confines together. It was not known at the time that the virus was airborne and spread through asymptomatic carriers, so the conditions in which the crew must carry out their tasks are incredibly dangerous.

But what choice do they have? Pretty much the same choice that most grocery store and fast-food workers in America had in the months ahead: Do your part to keep the economy afloat or lose your job and possibly get tossed out on the street.

One of the more popular expressions to describe the inescapable destruction of the pandemic was that it put us all in the same boat. The Last Cruise, however, literalizes that metaphor and reveals how its dark truth works, offshore or on. Even when we’re all on the same boat, some of us get to be passengers and some of us have to be crew.