ScienceThrillers review of movie Contagion

Viruses killing people aren’t the only way microbes can wreak havoc on society.  What if oil-eating bacteria got into the fuel supply and turned gasoline into vinegar? PETROPLAGUE by Amy Rogers

Whatever you were expecting–based on all the killer virus stories you’ve read or watched–forget it.  Contagion breaks the mold.  This is not the movie I thought it would be.

Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is difficult to say; I think different viewers will come away from this movie with very different opinions about whether they “liked” it.

When I walked into the theater, I had seen the Contagion trailer.  I knew that the Gwyneth character died within the first fifteen minutes.  I knew that she was the first case in a pandemic (a global epidemic) of some deadly virus.  What I wanted to know was 1) what would be the protagonist’s goal (and who would be the main character), and 2) how would the movie end: the collapse of civilization, or a miracle cure?  The answers were surprising.

In fact, my questions were entirely wrong.  Contagion is not structured like a conventional thriller, nor like most movies.  It has no clear protagonist / main character.  Instead, we follow at least six individuals–only some of whose stories intersect–as they do what they must do during the pandemic.  All are interesting, but none grab the viewer with particular intensity.  I expected the husband of the dead woman to be the main character, and I expected his goal to be to save his child.  This was partially true, but it was not the driving emotional force behind the story.

In fact, Contagion lacks a driving emotional force or compelling storyline other than a news-like progression through the events of the pandemic.  The dominant emotion is fear–not fear for the characters, but fear for yourself, in the real world.  This movie will scare the hell out of most people.

And it should, because Contagion displays an extraordinary level of scientific accuracy.  This is a science movie, with scientist characters, and the movie people did some serious homework.  Watching it is an education in scientific, medical, and social aspects of epidemiology, pandemic preparedness, and vaccine distribution.  It is disturbing because it’s real.  It’s not over the top.  The filmmakers stayed with the facts–regarding reasonable disease prevalence, infectivity, death rates, etc. for a novel influenza-like virus–and the facts should terrify people out of their complacency regarding infectious disease.

Kudos to the filmmakers for using impressively accurate technical language, laboratory settings (including the obligatory biosafety level-4 scenes), a flirtatiously gruesome but correct autopsy scene in which a face is partially retracted from the skull, 3D molecular modeling, and a superb visual depiction of how new viruses are formed by the recombination of DNA or RNA from different species of animal hosts.  They totally nailed it.

They also nailed the social aspects.  I LOVED the blogger character–disturbingly real, with his conspiracy theories, homeopathic remedies, and anti-vaccine beliefs.  The panic, the food shortages, the absenteeism among health care and emergency workers–all expected in a real pandemic.

In exchange for this remarkable fidelity to how a real pandemic might unfold–and how scientists from the CDC and WHO (World Health Organization) would track it, isolate it, and try to make a vaccine against it–the moviemakers traded away some of the stock elements of a typical thriller.  Contagion does not twist or turn (much); it does not work toward a powerful emotional climax; and characters do not perform superhuman feats.

In summary, watching this movie is like a voyeuristic experience of watching a real pandemic happen, as if you were in orbit around the planet with a big TV.  It will chill you, not thrill you.  It is extraordinarily intelligent for a Hollywood production.

I’ll be interested to learn how average moviegoers–those without a sophisticated appreciation for the accuracy of the events portrayed–react to this kind of storytelling.

Nice touches: visual emphasis on fomites (inanimate objects such as doorknobs that can transmit virus); the parallel drawn between the spread of (false) information and the spread of a virus.  Overall, a very stylish movie for both the visuals and the soundtrack.

***SPOILER ALERT***:  I know some of you want to know how the movie ends.

Contagion does end with a vaccine.  But it’s not a miracle.  The vaccine is created, manufactured, and distributed on something like the actual time scale (optimistic but not impossible) of a real-life influenza vaccine: weeks to months for the initial success, at least a year to meet the demand for doses.  So people keep dying even after a vaccine has been “found”, and there is trouble surrounding the question of who gets vaccinated first.  Certain individuals are given preference; then they go to a vaccine lottery, with distribution based on birthday.  The vaccine is a nasal spray that apparently requires only one dose, which makes distribution easier than if it were an injection.  Ultimately, the pandemic ends with a whimper, not a bang, and a lot of dead bodies.  Various main characters die but there aren’t any big plot twists in this film.

My final comment: If I were Carla Buckley, author of The Things That Keep Us Here, I don’t know whether I’d laugh or cry.  Some of the story lines in Contagion exactly match the events in Carla’s book (which is about a suburban family in Ohio trying to survive a flu pandemic).  I don’t blame plagiarism; it’s just that both works hew closely to probable reality.  But I doubt Carla’s book will get the kind of fame–and income–that Contagion will.  If you liked Contagion, I encourage you to go buy The Things That Keep Us Here (nominated for Best Debut Novel by International Thriller Writers, 2011).  The book is more emotionally engaging than the movie.

Disease isn’t the only way microbes can bring down civilization.  What if oil-eating bacteria turned all our petroleum into vinegar?  Read the new science thriller PETROPLAGUE by Amy Rogers

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