Review: HBO’s ‘The Last Cruise’ paints intimate picture of COVID-19 outbreak on Diamond Princess cruise ship

As someone who spent most of the past year covering the cruise industry and its trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I took a particular interest in “The Last Cruise,” one of the first documentaries to be released about the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The 40-minute film (★★★ out of four; will air on HBO March 30 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT and will be available to stream on HBO Max), paints an intimate picture of what happened on Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined off Yokohama, Japan, early in February 2020 after a former passenger tested positive for COVID-19. The case led to an outbreak of more than 700 cases and more than a dozen deaths. 

Hannah Olson, the documentary’s director, used footage taken by crew members and passengers to create an up-close and personal look at what it was like to be on board the ship during the quarantine.

The result was jolting. The homemade footage, often rickety, was anxiety inducing – a feeling one would imagine passengers and crew were also experiencing.

The film covers a range of points throughout the quarantine, first showing footage of the cruise itself and then moving to passengers hearing about the outbreak in Wuhan, China, to learning of the first case in the United States. Then passengers are told over a loudspeaker that a former passenger had been infected, which prompts a quarantine. Viewers watch as a few passengers and crew members document the quarantine with shaky personal footage that takes the audience to hospitals in Japan and through the U.S. evacuation of the majority of American citizens.

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"The Last Cruise" movie poster. (Photo: HBO)

Though the documentary painted a story and highlighted onboard emotions of anxiety, frustration and fear, something was missing: input from health and industry officials.

And the title of the documentary was misleading. Diamond Princess wasn’t the “last cruise.” Though it was the first to face quarantine, the ordeal was only the beginning of a pandemic struggle passengers and crew members faced on cruise ships. The Diamond Princess’ sister ship, the Grand Princess, for example, started a quarantine of its own days after the last people on board the Diamond Princess disembarked.

That said, the film showcased a side of the story that was inaccessible to the world as the more than 3,000 people quarantined on the Diamond Princess were going through an extended period of uncertainty as they faced an unknown virus that would sweep the world and has now killed more than 2.6 million people across the globe. 

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