This past weekend, the Beloved and I went to see the new natural disaster film Contagion. Natural disaster film, you say? Absolutely. Much more so than any of the crap that Roland Emmerich’s been churning out (2012, The Day After Tomorrow), Steven Soderbergh’s thriller has a decidedly realistic feeling – so much sometimes so that you can get the feeling that you’re watching a docudrama. You know, if your normal docudrama was populated with Oscar-caliber actors.
In Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Patient Zero in the outbreak of a particularly nasty and easily communicable viral infection – a very natural disaster. Soderbergh does an almost Pixar-esque bit of storytelling in the opening sequences – the camera moving from a following a slightly sallow Paltrow and lingering on objects she’s touched – a cocktail glass, a cell phone, a doorknob etc. I won’t go into the details but as you can imagine, things get ugly and they get ugly pretty quickly. The CDC and WHO are called into action. Politicians get worried. The populace alternately ignores it and panics.
Much like Soderbergh’s Babel, the story jumps back and forth to several parties as they try to deal with the spreading plague. What’s good is that most of the characters are “normal” people, who make mistakes, miss things, and take chances — no one seems like a stereotype. The film’s antagonist (besides the virus, I suppose) is a blogger (hah!), played by Jude Law, who professes the “Truth” about the pandemic – that it’s being controlled by a conspiracy of governments and pharmaceutical companies. He promotes a natural product remedy and sows discord between the authorities and a populace that is facing a worldwide death toll in the hundreds of millions.
Now, being a scientist, I’ve always watched movies and TV shows that feature research with some trepidation. Usually, there are way too many unrealistic three-dimensional displays, fluorescently colored solutions and “scientific sounding” gibberish. Soderbergh though correctly figured that an all-too-imaginable reality is a lot scarier than ridiculous schlock. To try and maintain scientific cred, he hired the Director of Columbia’s Center for Infectious Diseases as a consultant.
To their credit, the research labs look like research labs. Not too many flashing lights, a lot of plastic pipettes, and data in spreadsheets. The virology, while unlikely, is plausible – it’s contagious, but not super-contagious. It’s lethal, but not 100% lethal, and its made clear that the idea of trying to find a vaccine for a virus like this might cost you a lot of research monkeys and take more than 24 hours to create (I’m looking at you, Outbreak). There were a couple of things that we snickered at, but will likely go unnoticed except by structural biologists.
In the end, I think Contagion was a good-not-great flick that has a few genuinely scary moments — usually when a character (and you by extension) is contemplating the scope of death and upheaval something like this could cause.
Now I’m going to go wash my hands.