starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet and Elliott Gould
written by Scott Z. Burns
directed by Steven Soderbergh
This was a really scary movie about a new, unknown virus originating in China that crosses from animals to humans with a 25%-to-30% death rate. It made me want to wash my hands immediately. I think I will be a careful hand washer from now on, more than I ever have been before. In the film the spread of the contagion is fast, aided by modern transportation. What appears in Hong Kong one day can be distributed around the globe in a single day. Recent epidemics of SARS and N1H1 Avian flu were a model for the plot.
Add the time it takes for the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control to recognize a new disease, to isolate the bacteria or virus, gene sequence it, identify and quarantine victims, trace distribution patterns, and start working on a treatment, and factor in the functioning of a capitalist pharmaceuticals industry and you’ve got a really hairy problem. And, if a treatment is produced how long does it take to go into sufficient production to saved people? In a disease with a death rate as high as 25-30% what about maintaining social order? Crime control? Looting? Orderly assignment and distribution of a limited supply of drugs? Protection of government functions? In worst case scenarios what about closing of borders and ports, and instituting curfews and martial law? What about mass graves, or mass cremations?
There are some scary diseases out there, much scarier than AIDS. Thanks to retroviral drugs AIDS has now become a treatable, chronic condition - at least in affluent societies where patients can afford treatment. Overall in human history influenza has been the greatest viral killer of all. Bubonic Plague, originally with a 25% death rate, is still with us today, treatable upon diagnosis with antibiotics. The same with cholera. Polio. Smallpox. Ebola, which I think is the scariest thing out there, kills its victims so fast that it doesn’t have time to spread too far, which is kind of a macabre blessing. Any human who can serve as a carrier is killed too fast to carry it very far. With a little mutation in the virus, though, that might change. I hope not.
The decline in infant mortality, the rise of modern chemo-therapeutic medicine and the antiseptic nature of modern life in many contemporary developed countries have pushed death out of sight and out of mind for many of us. So what kind of a shock would mass deaths from untreatable epidemic disease be to us? How fast will law and order disintegrate? Probably faster than we might fear. But again, I hope not.
The most gruesome scene is when the body of Gwyneth Paltrow, one of the earliest victims and the primary carrier, is autopsied: skull cut open, scalp peeled back to expose her brain while her dead face pans the camera. We can’t see what the pathologist is doing, which makes it worse.
Senior pathologist: “Oh, my god.”
Junior pathologist: “Do you want me to call someone?”
Senior pathologist: “Call everyone.”
There have been many movies over the years about outbreaks of uncontrollable deadly disease in the world: The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man, I am Legend, The Book of Eli,Outbreak and many more. Plus there are all kinds of zombie movies based on the same premise. Contagion is good. Don’t forget, everyone, to wash your hands frequently. And, if you feeling you have to cough, for God’s sake wear a paper surgical mask, cheap at any drugstore or, in Japan, at any convenience store.