In 2011, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh made a movie about the global outbreak of a fictional deadly virus, and the societal breakdown that comes with it. In 2020, as COVID-19 keeps spreading around the globe, we are prompted to re-examine Contagion, not because the film presents an unrealistic worst-case scenario, but because it depicts an eerily plausible one.
Contagion is no average disaster movie. Back in 2011, screenwriter Burns worked closely with epidemiologists to write the film and conducted months of research into the science of pandemic to develop a highly realistic plot. Rather than creating a monster or a crazy illness (see zombie movies or hits like Bird Box, for instance) that would have inevitably given the audience a safe distance from the story, Contagion is a more explanatory drama. It shows the deaths and the panic but it also explains them. In order to do that, the film, rather than focusing only on civilians trying to survive the pandemic, follows different characters – from scientists and epidemiologists to bureaucrats and journalists – as they desperately look for answers and solutions. The only characters who are not working toward the control and prevention of the virus are Mitch (Matt Damon) and Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), a couple living in suburban Minneapolis. After Beth comes home from a trip to China, she collapses with seizures and dies in the hospital shortly after. Later on, she is revealed to be patient 0, the first documented patient in a disease epidemic.
Contagion starts with day 2 of the pandemic. A woman at the airport (Beth) talks on the phone with her lover. She seems sick and sweaty but dismisses the feeling saying she is jetlagged. A young man in Hong Kong takes a boat, a bus and finally arrives home, collapsing on the sofa. A model in London feels sick at work, and is later found dead in her hotel room. A man in Tokyo drinks a glass of water on an airplane. We see these people coughing, touching credit cards and handles, taking the elevator. In a few hours, they are all dead and the virus starts spreading. We are told that Kowloon Hong Kong has a population of 2.1 million, London of 8.6 million, Minneapolis (Minnesota) of 3.3 million, Tokyo of 36.6 million.
From this point onward, Contagion moves from one character to another, depicting a world where the virus, fake news and panic spread quickly, but also where individuals display courage and cold-blood to investigate the epidemic and save lives. Marion Cotillard is the World Health Organization epidemiologist sent to Hong Kong to trace the origin of the virus and who is later taken as hostage. Jennifer Ehle is the scientist studying the virus and its cells, the way it attaches to humans and potential vaccines. Kate Winslet plays the Health Investigator with the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sent to Minnesota to take decisions with people from the government.
One of the most interesting scenes, especially in relation to our current COVID-19 pandemic, is when Winslet explains the basics of the fictional virus (called MEV-1 in the film) to a group of local bureaucrats. MEV-1 seems to spread through coughing, sneezing and fomites – contaminated objects that can transfer disease to a new host. This means that touching surfaces such as lift buttons, handles, cellphones is highly contagious, especially because ‘the average person touches their face three to five times every minute.’ Winslet also brings up the concept of an R-0, namely how many people each sick patient would likely infect, an essential factor to understand the contagion and to stop it. As long as the virus can’t be understood, no vaccine can be found, and so, as Winslet explains, the best cure is social distancing and isolation.
Another extremely scary and realistic element that Contagion tackles is how randomly the virus MEV-1 is created and spread. ‘The wrong pig met the wrong bat,’ Ehle says while investigating the virus genesis. According to the CDC, 75 per cent of new diseases in people come from animals – including HIV, Ebola and also COVID-19. While COVID-19 started spreading in a wildlife Wuhan market, the fictional MEV-1 originates from a bat in China. And it is in the final scene of the film that we see the complete randomness of the spreading of the virus played out: a bat flies away from a tree and defecates in a pig pen; the pig eats its meal and is then killed and cooked; the chef shakes the hand of a woman visiting the restaurant; the woman touches the dices in a casino.
While it depicts people dying and panicking in great number and detail, Contagion is also a hopeful film. It features characters that are clever and competent: doctors who put their lives on the line, scientists who defy orders only to uncover key information to stop the virus, researches who tests vaccines on themselves to find a cure as quickly as possible. The message the movie wants to send out is clear, even more now that we find ourselves in an actual pandemic: wash your hands, do not touch your face, do not panic, trust the scientists and researchers. It will get better.