The Last Cruise debuts on HBO Max a year to the day after the nightmare it documents ended. On March 30, 2020, the Diamond Princess cruise ship finally left the Japanese harbor where it sat for weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak and quarantine. More than 700 of the 3,711 people aboard tested positive during the ordeal, and 14 died; the ship ended up being a ground zero of sorts for study of the highly infectious virus. Documentary filmmaker Hannah Olson (Baby God) pieced together the story with footage shot by passengers and crew, and the result is a concise, 40-minute film capturing in microcosm the global crisis that followed.
The Gist: On Jan. 20, 2020, the Diamond Princess left the Yokohama harbor with 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members. For two weeks, vacationers danced, gambled in the casino, swam in the indoor pool and visited sprawling buffets; during stops in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan and Okinawa, they basked in gorgeous scenery, went on kayaking excursions and celebrated the Chinese New Year.
We meet Mark and Jerri Jorgensen, American tourists taking a break from their professional lives as sex- and porn-addiction counselors. Their relatively sprawling cabin quarters includes an outdoor deck with a lovely view. We also meet Dede Samsul Fuad, an Indonesian man working as a dishwasher on the ship, and Maruja Daya, a pastry chef in the sprawling kitchen. Dede gives a brief tour of the crew quarters, which are tiny rooms below deck, with no windows, beds stacked; so much for the glamor of working on a cruise ship, but at least he gets to see the world, he says. Daya, meanwhile, is a single mother who works 13-hour days and makes $997 a month, barely enough to feed, clothe and house her three kids.
During the cruise, news of the COVID outbreak in China eked into the periphery of people’s luxury vacations. One crew member voices the general sentiment — there’s always a virus, so I’ll just wash my hands, no big deal. By the final day, with the ship docked in Yokohama, one passenger tested positive, inspiring a sense of unease. “Free day on the ship!” one passenger says — except it’d soon turn to free weeks on the ship, as one case became 10 cases that snowballed into hundreds of cases. Japanese officials in hazmat suits gathered in the harbor. Vacationers hunkered down in their cabins. Crew members kept grinding, cleaning the ship and delivering meals and medication to passengers. And here, two big stories begin to materialize: A real-life study on how COVID spreads, and a portrait of the class divide between the privileged passengers and the “essential workers” who risked their well-being to serve them.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Fire in Paradise, the short film about the devastating 2018 California wildfires, also consisted of cell phone footage crucial to piecing together a tragic story. The Last Cruise also has a scene in which a passenger jokes about being able to watch Groundhog Day on the ship, which is all too apt considering the repetitive quarantine lives they were living.
Performance Worth Watching: Dede is a nicely grounded, sympathetic and credible tour guide for the ship of horrors that was the Diamond Princess. He speaks openly about how his mental health was affected by the weeks-long ordeal, a moment that surely will ring painfully true to many, many people.
Memorable Dialogue: “It felt like a ghost ship,” Dede says over his cell phone footage of the empty halls in the once-bustling Diamond Princess, after passengers were sequestered in their rooms.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Funny how crew members aren’t allowed above deck until there’s an outbreak of a terrifyingly contagious disease. That’s how Dede got his footage of the plushly carpeted halls and preened shuffleboard courts of the Diamond Princess, since he wouldn’t be able to if all the white folk could leave their comfy cabins for high-class leisure activities. Dede talks about how crew members were getting sick and were afraid to report it, so the virus just spread and spread in those cramped quarters.
As information from officials remains sparse — I’m not sure they were hiding anything as much as they didn’t know exactly how COVID functioned — and testing doesn’t happen often enough, and a wild rumor spreads among the crew members that the ship will just be sunk along with everyone on board, cooks and janitors and stewards gather to pray for their health and Jerri Jorgensen complains that the key lime pie she ordered for dessert looks a little bit old. Olson purposefully juxtaposes two scenes back-to-back to make a greater point: An Indonesian woman risks her job security to do a TV news interview in which she pleads for help for workers on board. And the Jorgensens take their lunch on their deck, which has a lovely view of the harbor.
So there’s your subtext, a story that would play out to the current day, when “essential workers” still risk themselves to pay the bills, and others stay home, content to get their groceries and takeout delivered to their front doors. None of this is to say that people like the Jorgensens are disempathetic, selfish people, but they represent a piece of a larger systemic problem. And Olson isn’t saying that only the working class suffers, just that they tend to suffer more (a truth that’s been present for centuries, to be honest). We see some American passengers test positive and being separated from loved ones, and while we know better now about how such a situation might play out, the uncertainty was quite distressing a year ago.
The Last Cruise puts us right on the Diamond Princess, in all the tedious and terrible ways the pandemic would play out for the next year-plus, and counting. It also puts us on the passengers’ eventual military-plane ride back home, everyone tightly packed in, with actual COVID patients on board, behind a plastic sheet — a horror scenario that makes you wonder how big an impact the cruise ship superspreader event had on the virus’ spread in the States. A postscript explains how American scientists studied what happened aboard the ship, and learned that COVID-19 is airborne and can be transmitted through asymptomatic carriers. Social scientists surely see it as a petri dish of a different kind, too.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Last Cruise is gripping in the way it conveys the quiet horrors of a deadly viral outbreak — and the global pandemic, too. More comprehensive COVID documentaries have been and will be made, but this one effectively maintains a tight focus on one key component of a huge story.
Originally published at https://decider.com/2021/03/30/the-last-cruise-on-hbo-max-stream-it-or-skip-it/ on .