In the first few minutes of The Last Cruise, a new HBO documentary directed by Hannah Olson, the skies are clear, the waters blue, and aboard the Diamond Princess, aerobics classes involving hundreds are in full swing. The date is January 20, 2020, and the cruise ship has just set sail on a tour of Southeast Asia that will allow its 2,500+ passengers to explore cities like Hong Kong, Keelung, and Okinawa against the resplendent backdrop of the Lunar Year. Media reports of a mysterious virus circulating in China bleed in occasionally, but not enough to disrupt the ongoing festivities or dampen the enthusiasm shared by passengers and crew alike.
The ebullient atmosphere of the film takes a sharp turn when the Diamond Princess returns to Yokohama Port the evening of February 3. Though passengers are scheduled to disembark the following morning, preliminary medical screenings reveal that Covid-19—at the time still without an official name—has been detected on the ship, effectively forcing everyone aboard into a 14-day quarantine. Using cellphone footage captured by the guests and crew members themselves as its primary source material, the film invites viewers to witness the downward spiral of the Diamond Princess into mayhem through their eyes, turning a disaster of near-mythic proportions into an intimate account of survival, tragedy, and inequality.
After the Japanese Ministry of Health announces that numerous passengers have contracted the virus, we follow Dede Samsul Fuad, an Indonesian dishwasher, as he wanders the empty halls of the ship’s restaurant corridor, where he usually works. Similarly but separately, pastry chef Maruja Daya takes in the eerie silence of the high-end shops that have been abandoned in the virus’s wake—a moment of calm before the storm. The film immediately cuts to a shot of where all the action is taking place: the cramped kitchens in the hull. Virus or no virus, it falls on the crew to keep the ship running and the guests happy, a tall order that includes doing laundry, cleaning common areas, and preparing 3,000 meals three times a day. Meanwhile above deck, a guest confined to a comparatively spacious cabin films herself limply poking at a dessert with her spoon, complaining about its consistency.
The juxtaposition between the toiling crew and the inconvenienced passenger is one of many made throughout the film. Though neither population is monolithic, broad divisions based on class and nationality emerge early on that harden as the crisis intensifies. By February 7, 61 people aboard the ship had tested positive for Covid-19, but actual information on the virus—how it was transmitted, who was most at risk—remained scarce. Though the Diamond Princess passengers and crew are encouraged to stay calm, sounds of helicopters whirring above and sightings of hazmat-suited health workers milling about the port hint that the situation is more dire than it seems. Two days and nine additional confirmed infections later, we see guests Kent and Rebecca Frasure watching a video in which the chief medical officer of Princess Cruises explains the basic mechanics of the virus, stating that no evidence for airborne transmission currently exists. Minutes after the video finishes, Kent hears someone rummaging outside their room. When he peers into the hallway to check for the source of the commotion, he notices a sheet of paper has been taped onto the vent at the bottom of the door—clearly implying that airborne transmission, however uncertain, was still a threat.
Though the Frasures are lucky enough to be staying in a penthouse suite, Rebecca is immunocompromised due to her multiple sclerosis and unsure how her body might react to the virus. Like the service workers down below, she and her husband must find ways to cope with the anxiety and dread that weighs heavier with each passing day. But unlike the Frasures, the crew has virtually no means of preventing their exposure to the virus when they’re healthy or isolating themselves when they’re sick, packed as they are into dorm-style accommodations with no windows, bunk beds, and only curtains for privacy. When Sonali Thakkar, a member of the ship’s security personnel, learned her shipmate had tested positive but couldn’t get tested herself for four whole days, she made the risky decision to break her contract and take their plight to the media. “We need help,” she said in a televised interview with Times Now. “Each and every crew member needs to also be tested and be separated. We are happy to do whatever we have to do to help others, but we don’t feel safe.”
The nightmare ends for most of the ship’s American passengers on February 17 when they board two government-charted military planes bound for the United States. (Since Rebecca Frasure eventually tested positive for Covid-19 and had to be hospitalized, she and her husband were among the holdouts.) Italy, Canada, Australia, and other high-income countries dispatch their own rescue planes shortly thereafter. Unsurprisingly, we find out that the last passengers to leave the ship—nearly a week and half after American guests—are members of the crew, most of whom hail from Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. Come March 1, all passengers evacuate the Diamond Princess for good, with the Indonesian passengers being the last to leave. But until they were finally off the ship, the concern that they’d been left for dead—“being killed slowly,” as one crew member put it—remained horrifyingly real.
In just two weeks, the Diamond Princess had become the site of the largest outbreak of Covid-19 outside mainland China, with 712 confirmed infections and 14 deaths. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish we had more clarity on the exact steps Princess Cruises and the Japanese government were taking to protect the lives of those on board. Too much of the 40-minute runtime is devoted to the antics of the more privileged passengers and too little to making connections between the events surrounding the outbreak and the Covid-19 pandemic at large. In restricting our knowledge to the perspectives of the passengers and crew, however, the filmmakers succeeded in creating a first-person narrative that likely resonates for all viewers in one way or another. Likely for many of us the isolation, fear, and confusion that descended upon the Diamond Princess still hits too close to home. We can only hope that the next time a pandemic of this magnitude befalls us, we’ll be able to act confidently and knowledgeably to help ourselves and each other, rather than stay scrambling in the dark.