The movie “Contagion” is so realistic it’s boring

I have been looking forward to seeing the movie Contagion since it came out last year and I finally got to see it last night. I am a big fan of outbreak/apocalypse/zombie-type movies and, since I’m an immunologist, I thought this would be right up my alley. Boy, was I wrong. The problem with the movie wasn’t with the premise (a new flu-like virus makes the jump from an animal reservoir to humans and starts spreading rapidly), the casting (Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne), or the science (mostly spot on). The problem was that the movie was way too realistic.

Hmmm, let’s see, we’ve got politicians and public health officials trying to keep the public from freaking out, a corrupt blogger/homeopathic proponent trying to get people to take an herbal remedy to recover from the virus (while he’s invested in the company that makes it), a protective father/widower (Matt Damon better watch out or he’s going to be typecast soon!), mass riots and looting, a dedicated scientist who makes a vaccine in no time, and the ultimate recovery of the country and the economy.

Wait, huh? Where are the zombies? Where are the ghost towns? Where’s the blood oozing from eyeballs? This is just like what would happen in real-life if a virus wiped out 1% of the population of the Earth. People would be scared. People would lose loved ones. People would get sick and recover and then we’d move on. I don’t need a movie for this! There are way more dramatic things happening in the world right now! I think some character development could have saved the movie, but there were so many story lines going on at the same time it was impossible to get invested in any one character and the story lines never really converged.

SCIENCE CRITIQUE: the screenwriters of contagion mostly did a good job with getting the science right and the set designers made things look pretty good. Only a few things stuck out. In one scene they were rotating a ribbon diagram of what was supposed to be the virus and its human receptor and they were describing four proteins, but it only looked like there were two on the screen.  It also didn’t make a lot of sense that Kate Winslet’s character, a CDC EIS officer, was explaining basic epidemiology to a group of state health department officials (don’t they have degrees in public health?). But the labs looked good and the CDC really looked like the CDC (although I’ve never been in a BSL4 lab).

The bottom line: see the movie if you want a preview of what the next terrible outbreak will be like, but stay away if you’re looking for zombies …

One thought on “The movie “Contagion” is so realistic it’s boring

  1. It’s been almost a year since I saw “Contagion” and I still marvel at its achievement as a science film. It is a daring movie in this regard, with director Stephen Soderbergh giving us a film that is brazenly proud of science and scientists.

    There is a tendency to asses the science in a science film according to the accuracy of the information that it presents. Fair enough. The history of science – not to mention science fiction – films is littered with such many laughable errors. But allowance should be made to shortcuts made in service to the narrative; movies compress an enormous amount of story-telling into a two-hour package. That Kate Winslet’s character, a CDC EIS officer, explains basic epidemiology to a group of state health department officials, is a forgivable expository device: her intended audience is not the Minnesota Department of Health, it is us.

    The only glaring scientific error that I spotted in “Contagion” had to so with the fact that the vaccine developed to defeat the raging MEV-1 virus confers immunity immediately. Given the nature of the human immune system this is hardly believable – for example seasonal flu vaccines take a couple of weeks before they provide full protection – but given the human interest in seeing the young lovers of a significant subplot united at last, this concession to the storyline must be graciously forgiven.

    The triumph of “Contagion” is not so much that it gets its medical science facts right – and, for the most part, it does – but that it dares to show science as a complex interplay of individually challenging activities. Here director Soderbergh has partitioned the science story into three significant interacting systems. There is the detective story of the determining epidemiology of the new disease; there is the action story of confronting the imminent public health challenge, containing the spread of the virus while tending to the sick and the dying; and there is the story of discovery leading to the development of a vaccine that will halt the epidemic.

    These three threads are intertwined to form the core plot of “Contagion” and each of them is assigned a heroine – brilliant, selfless and driven – preternaturally able to stay on task when everyone about them are losing their heads. They make Iron-man and Spider-man and Bat-man look like a chumps, as they confront death without bluster or fanfare, their heroism emanating from both an intellectual longing and from an unassuming compassion for their fellow human beings. As I said in my own blog on this movie (http://bit.ly/OxqfYs), collectively these three woman create “a calm, efficient working center at the eye of the swirling global disease storm.”

    What is astounding with “Contagion” is that a big-budget movie would explore the complexity of the scientific enterprise with such unprecedented depth. It is a testimony to Soderbergh’s standing and independence as a director that this movie got made at all. I doubt that we will see the likes of it again anytime soon. We can only hope.