Fictional Science Film Saturday: Contagion

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.

Patient Zero

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.

Always Good Advice

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.



20 thoughts on “Fictional Science Film Saturday: Contagion

  1. I trust your tastes, Steve, so I guess I will go see the movie, even though I was creeped out when I saw this publicity stunt done by Warner Bros. in Toronto:

    I’ve become such a germaphobe lately, I’m almost OCD about washing my hands. I’ve had two friends die in hospitals after contracting staph infections following routine surgeries. The hospitals never explained why my friends came down with staph, nor did they apologize, but I was told that staph is present everywhere. It’s only when our immune systems are compromised or very low that we come down with an infection. Still, I’m taking no chances. What’s a few minutes washing my hands with soap and water compared to being hooked up to a respirator in the ICU? :)

    • Oh — that’s very cleverly done! My guess is they outlined the words in an antibacterial so that they grew differently. Very cool — you know, in a gross sort of way.

      I can’t imagine what it’s like to go into a hospital for something and GET something else. I would get SO mad.

  2. Wonderful review, Steve! I haven’t seen ‘Contagion’ yet, but after reading your inspiring review, I want to see it now :) Interesting to know that Soderbergh hired an expert to act as a consultant to the movie and made the research labs look very realistic. I have also always admired Soderbergh’s work. He doesn’t talk much, but is an artist who sculpts every scene in his movies carefully. The movie also has three of my favourite actresses / actors – Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. Which is one more reason for me to see the movie :) Thanks for this review!

  3. The director was unusual in that he allowed the technical advisers to tell him when to re-do a scene because it wasn’t correct. The last time that I can recall that happening was when Heinlein and Von Braun bossed the making of Destination Moon.

  4. I can not wait to see this film. I remember one of the actors being interviewed and saying that the director decided specifically not to overdo it and to just look at how scary it already would be without bombs or anything else that was unrealistic! I gotta go!

    • Miz — it’s definitely underplayed with the “whiz-bang” stuff and so it comes off very credible. I’ll be curious to see your opinions of the hospital scenes… :)

  5. Hmm, I wasn’t going to see it, thinking it would be over the top and silly, but now maybe I will. The video of the giant petri dishes though is really troubling – how did they get rid of that mess without spreading mold spores throughout the area?

    The compulsive handwashing you are all doing is not a bad idea, especially with flu season approaching. And then, there’s always MRSA. Seems like we’ve been having a special on it in my clinic lately. Too bad I can’t post the pictures, but definitely a scary infection.

    • I know — it was a big leap for her! Though don’t worry, there were a few flashback scenes where she looked like “herself”.

      I’m not sure it needs to be an “in-theater” viewing experience, though I will recommend you rent/stream it when it comes out.

  6. I have always been compelled by this genre of movie. Although it freaks me out beyond imagine and I’ll be in bed for weeks thinking of what I would do in that situation!

    LOL – Always Good Advice.

    My husband is an elevator mechanic, and it’s always funny for him to watch movies where elevators fall several stories or are possessed make for a few laughs – The Shaft comes to mind.

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