The Real Nostradamus: Why 2011's "Contagion" is the Most Important Film of the 2020s.

I’ll cut to the chase: the most important film of this decade isn’t Spiderman, Top Gun: Maverick, or Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s Contagion. The catch (no pun intended)- Contagion isn’t from this decade. It was released in 2011. Despite its age, though, it has predicted today’s global world with laser-like precision!

Contagion’s premise is broad but simple: a deadly pathogen causes a global pandemic. On a layover in Chicago following a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) coughs a lot and experiences “jet lag.” A few days later, at her home in Minneapolis, she collapses on the kitchen floor while having a seizure. She is rushed to a nearby hospital and soon after dies. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon)- shocked and grief-stricken- returns home to find his 6-year-old stepson dead as well. No one has any idea what this mysterious illness is, and Mitch is placed in isolation (it turns out he is naturally immune to it).

Around the world, other cases crop up. Various experts, including Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an epidemiologist at the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, his colleague, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Services officer, and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), a CDC research scientist, are all alerted to the crisis at hand. Dispatched to various locations, they race against time to develop a vaccine, marshal resources, and slow/contain the spread of the virus.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is MEV-1’s “index patient” in Contagion

The virus in question- MEV-1 (inspired by the real-life H1N1 and Nipah viruses)- is transmitted via respiratory droplets and fomites (tainted surfaces). It has a mortality rate of 25-30% and an R0 of 4. It originated from both bats and pigs, and it quickly kills humans. Its initial symptoms- coughing, stuffiness, and fatigue- quickly give way to fevers, seizures, encephalitis, and, finally, death.

While the globe suffers from this plague, other catastrophes arise. Gyms, airports, theaters, and schools all clear out, and entire cities turn into ghost towns. Food supplies run low and violent crime becomes rampant. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorist and blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) pushes a homeopathic, forsythia-derived “cure” to the public. The result is a parallel “pandemic” of fear that quickly spreads. People violently storm pharmacies and grocery markets.

Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a conspiracy theorist, in Contagion

This all of course should sound terrifyingly familiar. While the real-life Covid-19 virus that struck the world in March 2020 didn’t kill nearly as many people (its mortality rate was around 1%), everything else was spot on! Not just the protocols and terminology we’re all now familiar with (such as social distancing, quarantining, fomites, contact tracing, and R-naughts), but all the other deleterious stuff that occurred as well! The spread of misinformation…the panic buying…the vilification of the scientific community… the politicization of a natural threat…the bureaucratic pushback that occurred when more supplies were needed…the snake-oil salesmanship and other phony “panaceas”. If Contagion had only included a subplot about police brutality and a rancorous presidential election, they would’ve covered everything! Say what you will about Hollywood’s culture of smut, elitism, and preachiness, the arts & entertainment industry can really predict the future sometimes!

This is no coincidence. Contagion director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns conducted immense research before producing this hyperlink medical thriller. Burns consulted with numerous representatives at the WHO as well as medical experts W. Ian Lipkin and Larry Brilliant (the latter of whom worked on eradicating smallpox).1 Burns also met with author Laurie Garrett, whose 1995 book The Coming Plague helped him consider the film’s various potential plots.1 Burns conducted his research six months prior to the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic, which in turn spurred his fascination with how the world responds to outbreaks. How does society react during a pandemic’s initial stages? 1 Burns considered all the major real-life dilemmas we eventually encountered- How do we “flatten the curve”? How do we not overwhelm hospitals and healthcare workers? Do we need to close schools? If so, for how long? When will they reopen? What about the economic impact?

Contagion’s editing, music, and principal photography also expertly captured the aura of a real-life pandemic. Soderbergh and cinematographer Peter Andrews shot the film in Chicago, Atlanta, and Hong Kong wholly on a Red Digital Cinema RED One MX digital camera (which provides a 4.5K image resolution)7. This provided a filter that was as authentic and “as realistic as possible.”7. The “hyperlink,” cross-cutting between various locations provided the collective, gestalt feeling of such a crisis, and Cliff Martinez’s ambient, synth-heavy score, properly produced an experience of anxiety and dread.

In one particularly chilling scene, Dr. Hextall shows Dr. Cheever a slideshow of the virus’s protein structure. She calmly explains how the virus attaches itself to human cells: “It slides its way in like a key into a lock…somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: The critical scene in the film is its brilliant ending. The movie starts out with a caption: “Day 2.” The virus spreads and the global pandemic unfolds. By the end of the film a successful vaccine has been created, but over 20 million people worldwide have died. Then the ambient score resumes. We are treated to a flashback. A bulldozer knocks over trees in a Chinese rainforest. Bats disperse. One bat eats a fruit that drops into a pig pen. A pig eats the fruit. The pig is slaughtered. A chef at a hotel in Macau prepares the pig, doesn’t wash his hands, and then poses for a photo with Beth Emhoff. The suspenseful music intensifies and crescendos until a camera flash occurs and “Day 1” in bright red appears on the screen. The scene cuts to black and the credits follow. We are left with a haunting reminder of both the significance of the “butterfly effect” and the chilling reality of contagious illnesses.

In a 2011 interview with Slate magazine, science writer Carl Zimmer said the following: “[The film] shows how reconstructing the course of an outbreak can provide crucial clues, such as how many people an infected person can give a virus to, how many of them get sick, and how many of them die,” and then, referring to Lipkin’s help on the movie, “[They] are now capable of figuring out how to trigger immune reactions to exotic viruses from animals in a matter of weeks, not months. And once they’ve created a vaccine, they don’t have to manufacture it in bulk with the Eisenhower-era technology.”2.

Pediatrician and vaccine expert Paul Offit offered the following that same year: “Typically when movies take on science, they tend to sacrifice the science in favor of drama. That wasn’t true here.”3.

During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, Contagion became the seventh-most popular movie on iTunes, and it was listed as the number two catalog title on Warner Brothers (in December 2019 it was 270).4 As the film regained popularity, another stage of “life imitating art” occurred. The all-star cast (including Damon, Winslet, Cotillard, Fishburne, and Ehle) provided infomercial-type public service announcements for the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, instructing people on how to stay safe during Covid-19.5

“It is sad, and it is frustrating. Sad because so many people are dying and getting sick. Frustrating because people still don’t seem to grasp the situation we are now in and how it could have been avoided by properly funding the science around all of this. It is also surreal to me that people from all over the world write to me asking how I knew it would involve a bat or how I knew the term ‘social distancing.’ I didn’t have a crystal ball — I had access to great expertise. So, if people find the movie to be accurate, it should give them confidence in the public health experts who are out there right now trying to guide us.”6.

Scott Z. BuRNS’ TAKE ON The COvid-19 Pandemic

Right then and there Burns cuts through the noise, chaos, and confusion. We know SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) first appeared in Wuhan, China. We know it may have originated at a Huanan wet market or that it may have accidentally escaped a virology lab, but, in either case, it began in China. Within three months it had spread to every nook and cranny of the globe. According to the WHO, as of today’s date, there have been at least 700 million cases and over 6.9 million deaths worldwide.8 We know that it attacks the respiratory system and that its prognosis varies. We now know that breathing spreads it far more powerfully than tainted services and that proper distance and masking can help reduce its spread.

The real-life SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) viron under a microscope.

It’s been over three years since the Covid-19 pandemic began, and, yet it is arguable that the world is different in virtually every respect because of it! The way it revealed medical, economic, and social disparities. The way it changed how people work, communicate, and engage in commercial activities. And, yes, the way it emboldened the most vicious, conspiratorial, and self-righteous amongst us. In the vein of Krumwiede, some didn’t view Covid-19 as an imminent, deadly crisis. They viewed it as a personal inconvenience…one they could crusade against by re-framing and using “heroic” language (e.g., “We’re fighting for freedom!” or “We’re fighting against tyranny!”). Most of us know that what the world’s major, established scientific institutions told us was correct, though. A very effective, RNA vaccine was produced within a year of the outbreak, and the world has (for the most part) returned to normal.

But all the signs were there. The proactive planning for what to do in case of a pandemic was there. We have a wide range of virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, doctors, researchers, infectious disease specialists, and many, many other members of the worldwide scientific community that knows this stuff inside and out, and they were all guiding us on what to do. Various physicians and medical experts sounded the alarms. Former U.S. President Obama had an established protocol in place. And, last, but not least, Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns produced Contagion, a taut medical thriller that accurately predicted what would happen in the case of a real-life global pandemic! It’s too bad we didn’t heed its warning back in 2011!

SOURCES

[1] Douglas, Edward (September 6, 2011). “CS Interview: Contagion Writer Scott Z. Burns”. ComingSoon.net. Archived from the original on September 25, 2012. Retrieved June 25, 2012.

[2] Zimmer, Carl (September 9, 2011). “Could They Really Make a Vaccine So Quickly?”SlateArchived from the original on August 27, 2019. Retrieved September 18, 2011.

[3] Offit, Paul A. (September 13, 2011). Contagion, the Movie: An Expert Medical Review”MedscapeArchived from the original on September 25, 2011. Retrieved September 18, 2011.

[4] Clark, Travis (March 6, 2020). “Pandemic movie ‘Contagion’ is surging in popularity due to the coronavirus and has hit the No. 7 spot on iTunes”Business InsiderArchived from the original on March 13, 2020. Retrieved March 24, 2020.

[5] “Contagion Team Reunites to Create Coronavirus PSAs”. publichealth.columbia.edu. March 27, 2020. Archived from the original on September 4, 2020. Retrieved December 5, 2020.

[6] Michelle L. Norris (April 1, 2020). “He wrote ‘Contagion.’ Here’s what he had to say about the response to the coronavirus”The Washington PostArchived from the original on October 20, 2020. Retrieved December 5, 2020.

[7] “Contagion: Production Notes” (PDF). Visual Hollywood. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 7, 2017. 

[8] WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard | WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard With Vaccination Data

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