With the U.S. presidential debates wrapped up and the nearing election largely hinging on the management/mismanagement of COVID-19, what better movie to draw attention to than Contagion! Before I dig into this movie’s very insightful forward thinking plot and profound real-life lessons, let me just say EVERYONE should watch this movie – and some more than others!
In 2011 Contagion premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, though I originally saw it on the big screen in 2012 when first released in Canada – and I liked it. But now having reviewed it again given the very dangerous epidemiological situation we are all currently facing, I sincerely felt as if I was scanning an excerpt from Nostradamus’ 1555 magnum opus Les Prophéties (942 poetic quatrains), known for ostensibly predicting future events. Similar to the writings of this 16th century French astrologer/physician and reputed seer (aka Michel de Nostredame) this decade old movie offers a prophetic forebode of dreadful modern-day real-life COVID-19 events now realized. In short, OMG if this movie didn’t hit the nail on the head in every way! Not to sound like a soothsayer but Nostradamus did predict a ‘great plague of the maritime city’ – China perhaps? Again not to sound too dramatic but watching this movie felt like viewing a condensed real-world CNN newscast. Even Dr. Sanjay Gupta (my favorite most trusted chief medical correspondent) eerily appears in this film, which made this dated story seem much spookier indeed. I cannot stress enough how remarkably frightening it was to see just how right director Steven Soderbergh got it. It’s art imitating life in its truest form. Wow!
This disaster thriller opens with pale unwell executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) connecting through a busy U.S. airport coughing, sweating, and nauseous upon returning from a business trip in Hong Kong. By design she plans a layover in Chicago to engage in a brief sordid and dangerous dalliance with a former lover before returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis. Chalking up her severe illness to mere jet lag, it doesn’t take long before viewers learn something much more sinister is going on with Beth besides concealing her lack of moral character. Akin to COVID-19, in no time the transmission of the unknown microorganism in the movie explodes globally and like a domino effect, pandemonium is unleashed. Several disturbing scenes at the onset of the movie are quite unpleasant but necessary to set the tone that deadly viruses are serious business and nothing to take lightly. As people start dropping off in epic proportions with scenes of mass burials (likened to the actual endless rows of coffins on NY’s Hart Island), enter medic Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) who through meticulous contact tracing, attempts to identify Ground Zero of the virus’ origins in an effort to halt the swell. But since this respiratory pathogen labelled MEV-1 is airborne it’s a near impossible task. As experts struggle to grasp the enormity of the problem rumors and panic inevitably go viral wreaking havoc on society in every way. Without giving too much away it’s no surprise that bad behavior reigns supreme with people trampling each other due to food/supply storages. Vigilantism takes hold as people are left to their own devices, and with all borders closed there’s nowhere to go. Chaos is everywhere in a world gone mad, with no end in sight until a lifesaving vaccine can be developed. Sound familiar?!
The movie has an impressive ensemble but it’s safe to say that despite its star studded cast the lead role in this movie goes to the MEV-1 virus! A-list actors include Laurence Fishburne as CDC head Dr. Ellis Cheever, Marion Collitard as World Health Organization Epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes, Bryan Cranston as orderly Rear Admiral Lyle Haggerty, Jennifer Ehle as CDC virologist Dr. Ally Hextall, and Jude Law as blogger/conspiracist Alan Krumwiede who hassles scientist Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) while downplaying the seriousness of the virus yet spreading untruths about government coverups. This movie (like our COVID-19 reality) pits science against conspiracy theories. Ridiculous! Especially given the former is evidence-based while the latter is based on nothing! With the storyline now explained, let’s flesh out the valuable take-away messages this film imparts on audiences.
In truth, the picture conveys two equally corresponding overlapping messages. First, despite how viruses start (unfettered public markets, warfare, labs…) or who spreads them (man or beast), this movie reminds us that we need to take stock of how we live our lives, what we do (animal abuse), how we disturb the balance of nature (deforestation), what animal species we bring together that normally would not mingle (wet markets), and how people contribute to or thwart outbreaks depending on simple human behavior (washing hands, staying home when sick…). It’s clear cut. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Thus, bringing me to the second intersecting take-away message. Infectious diseases ultimately pose the greatest threat to mankind’s survival. These unseen combatants are very effective at ambushing with deadly force as they strike unexpectedly with little or no warning. It’s no secret that these hidden adversaries take over with a vengeance, leaving their targets unarmed and gasping at the gravity of the situation. But with all the knowledge we have on the subject why is it so difficult for some to embrace the danger viruses present?
Is it because we can’t see them? We can’t see the air we breathe either, or the radio-waves we use daily via technology, but we know both exist. Then again unobservable positives in life are always easier to accept psychologically. Whereas cloaked negatives are a different story. It is extremely difficult to rally people’s defense responses to wage war against unseen evils that are completely undetectable by the naked eye. Another contributing factor that plays into people’s reluctance to defensively act against viruses is that for some, ignorance is bliss. There are also those who become fatigued quickly or have difficulty gauging risk and therefore resist following standard commonsense medical advice. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly flawed leadership and miscommunication can lead to indifference and defiance. When epidemics hit, citizens look to their leaders for guidance. Much like a parent, the heads of nations and intelligence agencies take on the role of attachment figures with the primary duty of collectively guarding the homeland and taking care of its people by keeping them safe. If top advisors blatantly neglect their responsibilities – they are failures. What a shame it is when shared vigilance is needed but only perpetuated division is found. It’s true that nothing spreads faster than fear (except perhaps a virus) and unduly alarming people is not ideal, but in certain circumstances being afraid is a good thing. It can save lives. A perfect reason why listening to top health experts should be practiced.
On this point, doctors in this movie (and in real-life) make it transparently clear that when it comes to deadly viruses the only armor society has is practicing disciplined human behavior (social distancing, using hand sanitizer, self-isolating, wearing facemasks) until effective vaccines are developed. Make no mistake, obscure threats although veiled do exist and can be fatal with very high rates of lingering illness and death! Fiction vs. Non-Fiction – in sum the parallels between this sage flick and the nightmare we are all living with COVID-19 is truly chilling. Again, it deeply stunned me just how much art mirrors life in this film and how incredibly accurate Contagion portrays the ravaging effects that merciless germs let loose on our planet without regard or consequence. Needless to say I highly recommend everyone watch this movie. The rarity alone of how shaken you will feel by seeing a decade old film that so closely reflects our current reality is well worth the watch. The resemblance is uncanny.
P.S. In the movie as in real-life the virus originates in China. I have been to Hong Kong a few times and enjoyed how different and fascinating it was, though I admit I didn’t always know what mystery food I was eating. Yikes! Also as depicted in the movie, let’s hope the many highly valued infectious disease specialists (like Dr. Anthony Fauci whom I greatly admire) have a vaccine available soon for this terrible virus. I have personally experienced just how unforgiving deadly microbes can be. My nephew by marriage Mathew passed-away mere days after contracting a virulent strain of group A streptococcus bacterium. Before our very eyes this wonderful healthy 13-year old heartbreakingly lost his battle to a swift moving indiscernible killer. Like the dangerous COVID-19 virus it locked in and just took over; shutting down his organs and turning his limbs black before stealing him away. Life can be so damn unfair. Be safe.
NOTE: Germaphobia and/or OCD can be inflated due to the genuine health risks associated with COVID-19. The International OCD Foundation can offer guidance at: www.iocdf.org.