• Addie Horowicz

"CONTAGION": Nothing Spreads Like Fear


Nothing spreads like fear” reads the tagline for the 2011 movie “Contagion,” directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns. Charting on multiple streaming platforms over the past few months, the movie has seen a surge in popularity. This resurgence in attention is hardly surprising considering how the movie follows the story of a global pandemic that puts the United States on lockdown and causes a scramble for a cure, a mass shortage of necessities in stores and a legion of scammers looking to capitalize off of the desperation of the public. The filmmakers of “Contagion” build off of heavy research to explore the extent of human fear in the threat of a pandemic.

While there are obvious differences between the virus depicted in “Contagion” and COVID-19 (the fictional virus having a death projection of 20% compared to COVID-19’s 2%), the similarities between the reactions to the outbreak are strikingly similar. The script was reviewed and critiqued by countless scientific advisors in order to present a realistic projection of the response to a deadly pandemic. Numerous articles have been published recently picking apart the dramatic liberties the filmmakers took (e.g. accelerating the timeline of creating a vaccine), but the consensus is that the story aligns closely with reality in terms of scientific accuracy. “Contagion” even presented an entirely plausible origin for its fictional pandemic with its final scenes depicting how viruses can “jump species” to infect humans (in this case transferring from a bat to a pig to Gwyneth Paltrow). The sequence is so plausible that a Global Health Science professor at Georgetown University, Rebecca Katz, shows the scene to her students yearly to teach them about the viral connections between animals and humans, according to NPR. While the exact origins of the coronavirus are unclear, some experts have presented theories that aren’t dissimilar to the origin in the movie.

The scientific accuracy of fiction is what makes the movie so unnerving. Because the movie is so heavily researched, the dystopia-like America of the third act does not inspire confidence in the viewer. Earlier in the story, leaders and the general population ignored the warnings of experts. The cities kept the schools open, travel was unrestricted and people ignored the pleas to stop entering public places. In the third act, the virus has infected millions, and the fear is as exponential as the infection rate.

The desolate landscape features city streets overflowing with possessions of the deceased or evicted, shopping malls are abandoned except for teams of hazmat-suited disinfectors, military vehicles pass out hundreds of MREs (meal ready to eat) to lines of hungry people, all travel is prohibited and vaccines are administered to the population according to a lottery system based on birthdays. The final third of the movie is more contested than the first couple acts, largely because of the uncertainty of what the United States would look like in the aftermath of a major deadly outbreak. These scenes go further in exaggeration by using a “Hunger Games”- like style of dystopia to comment on human behavior.

That said, the movie captures the lengths to which fear can drive a population. While the possibility of our future aligning with this post-apocalyptic fate is slim, the world has already witnessed elements of this frightening picture.

Pharmacies and grocery stores have been overtaken by “panic-buyers,” and there have been reported shortages of items such as toilet paper and cleaning products. Similarly, ammo and home defense weapons were cleared from gun store shelves after President Trump’s official address. Multiple government organizations have warned consumers of the steep rise in reported scams that target anxiety over the virus. Officials have especially warned against websites marketing untested treatments for the virus, but sales have risen for a few supposed “cures.”

These events mirror those in “Contagion” and make the jump from reality to fiction that much easier. The movie uses its heavily researched background to explore how fear spreads along with a virus and what happens when the people ignore the warnings of health officials. “Contagion” leaves no room for the viewer to shrug off the possibility of its dystopian projection because “it’s not that realistic.” The movie sends a warning to the viewer: take this situation seriously and listen to your experts.

Movies You Should Watch:

Do you need a bit of an escape from all of this COVID-19 news? These movies will give you a much-needed distraction.

“The Dawn Wall”: For people who enjoyed “Free Solo,” this documentary follows climber Tommy Caldwell, who is set on free climbing (climbing with ropes purely for safety, not support) the infamous Dawn Wall of Yosemite park. The story follows his remarkable life by recounting his experience being kidnapped while climbing overseas and his rise to be a prominent climber even after he lost one of his fingers. For someone who is unfamiliar with the climbing world, this documentary blew my mind.

“127 Hours”: In this true story, James Franco plays an arrogant adventurer who falls and is trapped in a cave with his arm wedged between a rock and the cave wall. The movie is set in the 127 hours he has to survive as he battles serious dehydration and slowly loses his sanity. To make it out alive, he has to make an irreversible decision. This movie was kept as close to reality as possible, with only a few deviations from the truth, a fact that makes it all the more insane.

“Superbad”: Young Jonah Hill and Michael Cera are the highlights of this classic comedy movie. The movie is less about the plot and more about the hilarious delivery of the lines from an all-star cast. With minor characters played by Seth Rogen and Bill Hader, this movie is undeniably funny and makes for a great distraction.

Articles checking how accurate the movie is:

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/16/802704825/fact-checking-contagion-in-wake-of-coronavirus-the-2011-movie-is-trending

https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/02/movies/contagion-movie-versus-coronavirus-scn-wellness/index.html

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/14/contagion-movie-advisors-anticipated-pandemic.html

https://www.npr.org/2020/03/20/817369503/some-stock-up-on-guns-and-ammunition-during-coronavirus-crisis