“Contagion” Movie More Fiction than Science Reply

A review by Richard L. Lobb

The new movie “Contagion” had its Washington preview screening Tuesday night (Sept. 6). The good news is that the disease is NOT bird flu and is not spread by birds. It seems to be some sort of influenza/encephalitis that combines a pig virus with a bat virus. It is dubbed MEV-1 and and is said to have been created when “the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

At the very end, it turns out Gwyneth Paltrow got it from the chef who got blood and saliva on his hands from a pig that got it from the bats when the bats were disturbed by the bulldozers at the factory groundbreaking that Gwyneth Paltrow was in China to attend. Capitalism causes all kinds of problems, you see.

Poor Gwyneth dies ten minutes into the film but keeps popping up in flashbacks as dedicated scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization race to uncover the mystery of the virus and to develop a vaccine. Kate Winslet plays a CDC investigator who falls victim to the virus but selflessly tries to develop a contact list (“I need the names of everyone who serviced this room in the last 24 hours!”) between hacking coughs. Alas, she, too, succumbs to the raging epidemic. French actress Marion Cotillard, as the WHO’s Dr. Leonora Orantes, is kidnapped and held hostage by Chinese men intent on getting enough vaccine to save their village. Jennifer Ehle, as the CDC’s Dr. Ally Hextall, finally discovers the vaccine and tests it on herself. Fortunately, it works.

In the meantime, 25 million people around the world die in a matter of months. (Or was it weeks? Hard to tell.) Government agencies other than CDC behave with a combination of timidity, stupidity, and finally armed force as looting breaks out and riots erupt. Jude Law plays an unscrupulous journalist/blooger/activist who fakes symptoms of the disease in order to hype (and profit from) a useless homeopathic remedy.

The film is supposed to be a thriller, but I found myself looking at my watch in between trying to take notes in the dark. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen most of the action parts. Much of the rest consists of meetings of U.S. and international experts and officials and earnest chalk talks on epidemiology. (It reminds me of “The Social Network,” which consisted of pre-trial depositions interrupted by wild parties.)

The film’s depiction of the epidemic agrees with the truth in one respect: it shows that direct contact with the blood of an infected animal can be dangerous. The chef in Hong Kong handles a slaughtered pig and quickly wipes his hands on his blood-smeared apron when he’s asked to go out and shake hands with the American lady who liked the pork ribs. Thus Gwyneth Paltrow becomes the American index case. (There are others in Japan, England, and other countries.)

But the movie goes off the deep end by depicting the disease being spread through the most casual sort of indirect contact. The waiter who picks up Gwyneth’s cocktail glass, and the Ukrainian lady who touches her cell phone, both quickly succumb to the virus. The disease does not so much spread as explode around the world in a few weeks. In truth, nothing spread this easily; if it did, the human race would have died out long ago.

There’s nothing in the film about chicken or poultry except for a fleeting shot of a market in Hong Kong where workers are busily chopping animal parts that could be chicken or could be pork, or something else for all I could tell. But the virus is fairly soon identified as originating in swine, although it is specifically stated that it is not H1N1. No live birds are depicted as playing a role in causing or spreading the epidemic. This is not a movie about bird flu. When a man from Homeland Security asks if the virus could be “weaponized,” Lawrence Fishburne, a top official with CDC, says, “The birds are weaponizing it for us,” but birds are not in fact depicted as carriers of the virus. Those winged things in the ads are bats, not birds. Bats are not birds at all but flying mammals. The species barrier is intact.

The most important thing to remember, however, is simply that the film is a work of fiction and should be appreciated as such. It’s just a movie.

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