A film based on a pandemic that kills millions sends countries into lockdown and brings out the worst among people may perhaps be the last thing on your watchlist, amidst COVID-19 outbreak. As if one needs to add more fuel to the fire of panic that grips us. And yet many are re-watching director Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion (available on Amazon Prime Video) which chronicles a fictional outbreak of a novel virus and its global implications. So much so that it has become Warner Bros’ second most-watched film. The reason? It is said that this film, despite releasing in 2011, got the present reality right to an alarming extent. So is that right? Did Contagion actually predict the future?
To know how accurately Contagion captures a novel virus (a virus that hasn’t been seen before, to say loosely) outbreak I saw the film last night, because clearly, I have no regard for my sanity. And yes, the film gets a lot right.
What is it about?
Contagion is about the outbreak of fictional virus MEV-1. In the opening sequence, we see sick people traveling on airplanes, trains and buses, sweating, visibly febrile and touching surfaces, and that is where it starts ticking the boxes. The only stark difference is that MEV-1 is shown to target indiscriminately and much aggressively, with one of its first causalities being a mother and her young child. Like coronavirus, it spreads via respiratory droplets and fomites (objects that carry infection). As the numbers pile up, CDC struggles to first identify the strain, find a cell-culture to grow it and then develop a vaccine for it. But rumours and fear spread as fast as the virus itself sending cities into lockdown as the mob turns aggressive for possible cures and resources. Supermarkets and pharmacies are raided, houses are robbed, people try to escape the cities, leading to long queues on highways. Everyone is asked to isolate themselves if they want to remain safe.
Contagion is about the outbreak of fictional virus MEV-1. In the opening sequence, we see sick people travelling on aeroplanes, trains and buses, sweating, visibly febrile and touching surfaces, and that is where it starts ticking the boxes.
But the film doesn’t end with the pandemic engulfing humanity. As a vaccine is developed for the virus, we see the world slowly reboot and return to normality, which is a relief. However, the process to develop the vaccine is shown to be tedious. and while in the film the vaccine is developed in a matter of months, with a lottery system being used to administer it among people, we are still unsure when we will have a vaccine for coronavirus. (A clinical trial for a possible vaccine developed by the US is underway as this piece was being written.
Apart from its plot, the film is full of visual and narratives which are both relatable and alarming. There is a lot of emphasis on fomites, as we see infected people touching handles on buses, each other’s phones, doors at the school etc. In one scene a professor studying the virus is shown sitting at a restaurant where he observes people touching food, cutlery, handles, glasses, cups and each other and suddenly the gravity of the situation dawns on him. Hand sanitizers find a reference too and I winced as if someone had picked at a small but fresh scab on my arm.
Another thing that the film gets right is the spread of fake news, conspiracy theories and the role the internet plays in it. Amidst an era when messages and memes are being used to spread hatred for certain ethnicity, misinformation and unverified cures, Contagion cautions us about the hostility and panic this could lead to.
While the mortality rate and nature of symptoms are different in some aspects to what we are seeing with coronavirus, the common instructions of social distancing and washing your hands frequently are emphasised on in the film too.
Did it leave me with a panic?
No, but I would not recommend it to everyone. Watch this film at your own risk, but I would add here that it can be seen more as a cautionary tale with a silver lining. As Contagion’s producer Michael Shamberg recently told Buzzfeed News, “It was very deliberately designed to be a cautionary film. We got the science right.”
If there is anything you must take away from Contagion, then it is its reflection of human nature. It doesn’t take much for us to turn on each other. Today we are witnessing people hoarding sanitizers, get into fist-fights over toilet paper and authorities who have lived in denial or censored the facts. Once the disaster spins out of hands, and we are left fighting for food, vaccines, essential supplies, how many of us will be able to retain our humanity? How many of us will be able to spread kindness when we have mouths to feed and loved ones to protect? The answer is scary, you’ll not like it, and that is why we have to take every possible effort to contain coronavirus. Wash your hands, stay at home and be patient.
Picture Credit: YouTube screenshot