Since lockdown began, the 2011 film Contagion has become one of the most watched films online. This is hardly surprising, given that it’s about a global pandemic, but it’s also very surprising because who in their right mind would watch a film about that right now, while we’re actually living it?
Well, apparently I would.
I watched Contagion a few weeks ago, having never seen it before, partly out of a morbid sense of curiosity, and partly because I wanted to see exactly how ‘prescient’ this film is – that was something I had heard a number of people say about it. (Also, partly so that I could tell people I had watched Contagion during lockdown, because maybe that would make me a bit of a badass?)
Anyway, here are my thoughts on Contagion – what it got right and what it got wrong, from the point of view of someone living through an actual, heavens-to-Betsy real global pandemic.
What happens in Contagion?
This film is about what happens during the outbreak and spread of a new disease. This disease is called MEV-1, and it managed to cross over to infect humans after “the wrong bat met the wrong pig” somewhere in the world. (The prescience alarm is going off already, as Covid-19 is thought to have originated in bats.) MEV-1 is a highly contagious, very dangerous type of flu that leads to seizures and, often, death.
The film follows a number of characters as they deal with the ever-changing reality of the pandemic. These characters include Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), one of the first victims of the disease; Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband, who is immune; Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a doctor working on the ground to contain the disease; various scientists and epidemiologists (Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle) working to find a cure; and Alan (Jude Law), a blogger and conspiracy theorist who spreads misinformation about MEV-1.
The film does a good job of balancing the human stories with hard science. There are discussions of MEV-1’s R0 (a measure of how contagious it is – spoiler: very), the measures taken to contain it, and the process of developing a vaccine. Had I watched this pre-pandemic, a lot of this would have been brand new information, but now these sorts of discussions have become commonplace, and it’s a little eerie to think that this is stuff we all know at least a bit about now because this is the bathwater we’re soaking in.
The tagline of the film is ‘Nothing spreads like fear’, and I read a very interesting take on this idea. Rick Edwards and Dr Michael Brooks released, for free, the chapter about pandemics from their book Hollywood Wants to Kill You: The Peculiar Science of Death in the Movies. Here’s what they wrote about the idea that ‘nothing spreads like fear’.
… that’s not really true. Viruses, arguably, spread faster. In the face of a pandemic, making people afraid enough to avoid all risk of catching the disease is half the battle.
And oh boy, hasn’t that turned out to be true!
What Contagion gets right
Contagion gets quite a lot of things right, and that’s why it’s so difficult for many people to watch right now – it’s just a little too real at times. For example, early on in the film there’s quite a lot of focus on ‘fomites’ – these are surfaces that the virus can live on, and via which it can spread to countless other people. There are a lot of lingering shots of things infected characters have touched (door handles, bus seats, drinking glasses, etc), and a particularly memorable moment when one character is sitting in a bar, realising how often we touch and share things in public without thinking about it – and how frightening that looks in a virus-riddled world. That’s something that really stuck with me. I can certainly see how we’re all going to be much more fomite and germ conscious after this is over.
The film is also very accurate in the measures that are recommended to slow the spread of the disease. Someone actually says the words ‘social distancing’ at one point (more fool me for thinking that was something we made up for this pandemic; turns out the term has been around for a while), people are advised to wash their hands and wear masks, and conference centres and stadiums are turned into makeshift hospitals. It’s worth pointing out that these things don’t make the film ‘prescient’. It isn’t an astonishing coincidence that Contagion manages to be pretty realistic about the realities of a pandemic and how we would react to it; it’s just science. Pandemics are something that humanity has always had to deal with, and so it really was inevitable that we would have another one, and that it would probably go global because the world is so interconnected. Still, humans aren’t naturally very good at probability, and it’s hard for us to accept the likelihood of something happening … until it does.
Unfortunately, something the film does seem to be insightful about is ‘fake news’ in the form of Jude Law’s blogger character. At first it seems like he might be genuinely investigating something that the authorities are trying to keep quiet, but then he goes off the rails and starts proclaiming that he has found a homeopathic cure (which isn’t real, obviously). He takes to the internet and spreads his misinformation, which leads to people attacking shop staff to get their hands on the ‘cure’ and others refusing to take the vaccine that will actually protect them. Sadly this is also happening with the coronavirus pandemic: claims and speculation about ‘cures’ (including injecting bleach, for God’s sake) are making their way around the internet and could put lives in danger, and the anti-vax movement is already gearing up to reject the Covid vaccine. Well done Contagion for noticing that possibility and for making Jude Law’s character so odious!
What Contagion gets wrong
Of course, Contagion isn’t perfect, and there are a couple of things that jumped out at me as I watched. First, the social distancing in Contagion is pretty bad. Although the characters talk about it, it’s actually quite difficult to accurately portray social distancing on screen, to the extent that we have experienced it. Characters need to meet and talk and look dramatically into each other’s eyes, and so most of the people we follow continue to travel and go to work in their offices. Of course, we are typically following people working on the front line, rather than your average person sheltering at home, but still, if the events of this film were happening in real life, a lot more of these scenes would happen through the medium of our new overlord and master, Zoom.
But probably the biggest thing that Contagion gets wrong is the social unrest.* In the film (and this could be because the disease MEV-1 is much more deadly than Covid), people break into shops and fight in pharmacies for supposed cures. There is rioting and looting and society fairly quickly falls apart as everyone becomes embroiled in a desperate struggle for survival. It’s typical disaster movie fare – Hollywood likes to believe that when things get bad, society collapses and we become self-interested automatons, willing to kill and maim over the last can of beans in the supermarket. In real life, we had a run on toilet paper and bread flour, but even that level of mild hoarding was tutted about and generally understood to be bad form. The Covid pandemic has shown us that we’re much better at pulling together and not killing our neighbours than Hollywood gives us credit for.
Should you watch it?
Contagion is a strange film to watch at a time like this. We’re used to watching ‘disaster’ movies from a comfortable distance, safe in the knowledge that what we’re seeing probably won’t happen to us – it’s highly unlikely any of us are going to live through a zombie apocalypse, an undiscovered volcano erupting in our town, an alien invasion or an attack by giant nuclear-mutated monsters. These types of films are (usually) a way for us to experience something dangerous without actually being in danger.
But watching Contagion now means seeing that danger on screen, while also being surrounded by it in real life. We can’t turn the film off and step out into a world that isn’t affected by fomite fear and social distancing. It’s uncomfortably close, unnervingly real. In a way, this reflects how the Covid pandemic unfolded – at first we in the West saw it from a distance, through news reports on our screens, and like so many previous disasters it felt distant and not quite real. But then it leapt off the screens and into our lives. Watching Contagion now is that much more confronting because it shows us that the screen isn’t necessarily a solid barrier between us and danger, and that isn’t a comfortable thing to learn. If you’re not looking to feel unsettled like this, don’t watch Contagion. But if you do like to mess with your own head (or you just want to feel like a badass), it’s a pretty mind-bending experience to watch a disaster movie while living through it too.
* Of course, I should mention that there has been social unrest during Covid, most notably in response to the murder of George Floyd in the USA. But these were protests, not riots and looting, and they were not about individuals selfishly grabbing what they could to survive, but organised gatherings taking a stand against a greater societal injustice – a very different phenomenon from what we see in Contagion.