Contagion was a film released in 2011 about a fictional pandemic of a virus called MEV-1 which kills between 25 and 30 per cent of those it infected. Here is our review of the film originally published in September 2011, now that it’s on Netflix
6 April 2020
This review was originally published in September 2011.
It’s hard to name many Hollywood blockbusters that are as invested in the realities of science as Contagion. There certainly are plenty of enormously successful science-fiction films that abuse science in the name of drama, like Outbreak and The Day After Tomorrow, but very few Hollywood productions realistically portray the process of science, both its successes and frustrations. That’s what makes Contagion unique. Although it is by no means flawlessly accurate – it’s not a NOVA documentary – Contagion has been well fact-checked compared to most science-y blockbusters.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh – who previously directed Traffic and the remake of Ocean’s Eleven – Contagion‘s all-star cast includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet.
The story begins with Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) coughing in an airport in Chicago, on her way back home to Minneapolis after a business trip to Hong Kong. Before long she begins to have seizures and foams at the mouth. Meanwhile, other people around the world – in Tokyo, London and Hong Kong – succumb to exactly the same symptoms.
A series of carefully focused shots and strategically placed scenes emphasise that everything in the world is a potential vector for the fatal virus: doorknobs, credit cards, empty glasses, napkins, a bowl of peanuts at a bar, airplanes, handshakes, sex. As millions become infected worldwide, quarantines are imposed and people grow afraid to go anywhere or interact with anyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia and the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, work nonstop to identify the origin of the disease, create a vaccine and keep the public informed, but not panicked. But they cannot stop the riots or looting ‐ nor can they stop the avaricious freelance journalist Alistair Krumwiede (Law) from spreading lies online about a false cure made from the flowering plant forsythia.
The movie’s exhilarating pace never sags, even in scenes that have the potential to bore people out of their minds: a meeting between an epidemic intelligence service officer (Winslet) and the Minnesota Department of Health, for example. But Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns practice what is in effect very successful science communication: they keep the viewer’s attention as they explain statistics like the all-important R0 – the average number of people an infected person infects – and truths about the scientific process, such as the fact that before researchers can study a virus, they need to figure out how to grow it in cell cultures in the lab, without the virus destroying all the cells.
MEV-1, the film’s fictional virus, is modelled upon the bat-borne Nipah virus, which was identified in 1999 when an outbreak caused brain and lung disease in pigs and people in Malaysia. In the film, MEV-1 kills people within days, but in real life the incubation period for Nipah – and many deadly viruses – is more like two weeks.
Once the CDC identifies a weakened live strain of the virus that protects monkeys against the disease – and after CDC scientist Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) follows a brave tradition of making herself the first human test subject – a vaccine somewhat miraculously speeds into mass-production. Outside Hollywood’s bubble, it would take many months of testing and brewing – and many more of securing authorisation from health authorities – to release a viable vaccine for global distribution. But epidemiologist Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, who consulted with Soderbergh during production, says that the pace of Contagion‘s finale is not as unrealistic as it might seem, Carl Zimmer reports in Slate. Lipkin says today’s scientists have the tools to create a vaccine much faster than ever before – especially if there’s impetus and funding from the government.
Throughout the film there is the suggestion that the virus might be a bioweapon, but that idea is never validated. As the CDC’s Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) tells the Department of Homeland Security, “Someone doesn’t have to weaponise the bird flu. The birds are doing that.” Contagion‘s final scenes reveal the unfortunate, but entirely plausible origin of the novel virus.
Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to read any plot spoilers.
It turns out to be caused by an interaction between a bat and a pig – a pig that winds up in the kitchen of the Hong Kong casino in which Beth Emhoff spends her last night in town.
Those final scenes underscore Contagion‘s dedication to scientific accuracy. Throughout history, many deadly viruses have jumped from one species to another – from birds to people, or from pigs to people or from birds to pigs to people. Interspecies interactions are a major breeding ground for new terrifying viruses.
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“I didn’t want the virus to be divine retribution, or the result of a military conspiracy,” Burns told io9 in an interview. “I wanted it to be the result of life on Earth in its most mundane. To me there’s something more frightening about what really truly happens in the world.”
Contagion is available now on Netflix
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