If you’ve been paying attention to the news, then you may have heard about the outbreak of a new coronavirus that’s been spreading outward from Wuhan, China since December of last year. As of Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared the virus “a public health emergency of international concern.” It’s been making top headlines on the CNN homepage over the last week as Chinese cities with a total population of almost 60 million have gone into lockdown. The outbreak has unfortunately dovetailed with the Chinese New Year, a busy travel season when a lot of people would normally be coming and going from China to celebrate the holiday and spend time with their families.
Even if you live in a stateside movie vacuum, you may have noticed how Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion mysteriously started trending on the iTunes movie store along with newer awards season releases like Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As we reported on Wednesday, Soderbergh’s film cracked the top ten on the rental chart, despite it being an old release that came out nearly a decade ago. This isn’t just a fluke. There are several eerie parallels between Contagion’s plot and the real-world story playing out on the news right now. Here are the ways the movie drew on past viral outbreaks and augured the present crisis of the 2019 and 2020 “novel coronavirus,” officially known as 2019-nCoV.
Spoilers for Contagion follow.
1. A Bat-Born Virus in China with an Intermediate Host
The first identified human cases of 2019-nCoV spring from a seafood and livestock market in Wuhan. As recently as last week, there were reports coming out that the virus had possibly come from snakes, but the latest news indicates that bats are the source, with snakes or an “unknown wild animal” being a possible intermediate host. 2019-nCoV has drawn frequent comparisons to the infamous SARS, another 21st-century bat virus transmitted to people. The idea of bats as virus carriers isn’t just something from vampire movie lore. SARS originated through cave-dwelling bats in China’s Yunnan Province. It passed through another animal — the civet, a cat-like mammal found in Asia — before infecting humans.
Scientists have been studying these bat viruses in caves in China and elsewhere in the world and sounding the alarm bells about them since before Contagion ever went into production. It’s not as though this movie just magically predicted what would happen in the real world. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns consulted with noted authors, epidemiologists, and WHO representatives to make Contagion’s depiction of a pandemic as accurate as possible. In doing so, he helped conceive a scene that would burn itself into people’s memories right before the credits rolled.
Contagion uses the mystery of the fictional MEV-1 virus to drive its plot. It’s not until the ending scene that we finally see the exact origin of the virus, which shows pigs as the intermediary host instead of snakes. From the Wikipedia plot summary:
“In a flashback, the source of the virus is revealed: an AIMM bulldozer clears some jungle and disturbs a bat, which takes food from a banana tree. The bat flies over a pigpen, dropping a chunk of banana, which is then eaten by a piglet. A chef from the Macau casino buys the piglet. As he handles the carcass in the kitchen, he does not wash his hands when called to meet a customer – Beth Emhoff [Gwyneth Paltrow]. The chef shakes hands with Beth, giving her the mix of bat and pig viruses, making her patient zero.”
2. Stirring Up Trouble in Jungles: The Human Element at Play
Contagion’s penultimate scene ends the character-drama portion of its plot on a heartbreaking but not entirely hopeless note. Upstairs in his house, Matt Damon’s character sits in the closet crying, scrolling through photos on his wife’s digital camera that show her and her colleagues chowing down on spare ribs and shaking hands with the chef whose unsanitized hands would ultimately infect her with the virus that claimed her life. With tears in his eyes, he goes downstairs to meet his daughter and her boyfriend, who are enjoying a private prom night in a living room decorated with gold Christmas lights. As they dance to U2’s “All I Want Is You,” it’s a profoundly human-centered moment that cuts through all the madness.
Then comes the bulldozer. At the Japanese premiere of his 2017 film Logan Lucky, Soderbergh used a quote from author Donald Richie to talk about how he has striven toward an East-meets-West sensibility with his work: blending “sequential flow, connection, and association” with “occurrence, causality, and responsibility.”
Contagion’s ending scene offers a 75-second masterclass in that. That image of the bulldozer clearing jungle, which kicks off the dialogue-free montage that concludes the film, rolls us into a sequence of pure visual storytelling. The viewer is left to infer causality and responsibility from sequential flow and connection.
It’s no so much playing the blame game as it is posing a final question, asking the viewer to consider the human race’s role in the bat virus outbreak. That’s something worth examining. The New York Times recently ran an interesting piece talking about the human factors that contribute to the spread of viruses like 2019-nCoV. This excerpt, in particular, calls to mind Contagion‘s ending scene:
“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
3. The Index Patient: Media Opportunism in the Online Age
This might seem like a strange one to end on, but we live in a time where information itself goes “viral,” spreading like a disease, mutating, ideas memeifying and taking on an unwieldy life of their own. At the center of all this is online media, including social media, which is often the fastest-breaking source of news. If news travels fast, fear travels faster. Contagion‘s own movie poster tagline even hammers this home: “Nothing spreads like fear.”
Against this fear-mongering backdrop, Soderbergh’s film offers the subplot of Alan Krumwiede, the vlogging conspiracy theorist played by Jude Law. Krumwiede distributes alarmist flyers and rails against the lack of transparency from governmental organizations like the CDC (Center for Disease Control). On the one hand, he’s not completely offbase, as there does exist a real-life precedent with SARS for a government withholding crucial information from the worldwide public. On the other hand, his own motives are highly questionable, as it’s revealed that he’s in the pocket of investors who want to capitalize on the crisis with forsythia, an herbal remedy they’re selling.
In his videos, Krumwiede (falsely) claims to be infected and touts the effectiveness of said remedy, causing his viewers to make a run on the pharmacy. In a section entitled “The Epidemic of Fear,” the production notes for Contagion characterized Krumwiede as “a confrontational freelance journalist” who “pursues an agenda of his own.” Burns put it this way: “Just as a virus begins with one person and spreads, Krumwiede becomes the ‘index patient’ for what becomes a parallel epidemic of fear and panic.”
Since I live in East Asia, right on the edge of the world’s most populous metropolis, there’s a little more fear and panic on the street here than there might be in the west at present. It’s the kind of thing where you hear suburbanites talk about avoiding the city and airports or any crowded place. Normally busy station restaurants seem to be much less packed during the lunch rush, while even staff members at family-friendly theme parks have started wearing white surgical masks because of their constant contact with both domestic and foreign tourists.
Movies like Contagion and Outbreak and constant news coverage can undoubtedly help fuel panic during a real outbreak. The converse of that is that movies hold the power to leave a lasting image in people’s minds, one that transcends the bounds of white-noise information and raises awareness through audiovisual narrative.
It’s one thing to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s scalp pulled down over her eyes in a gruesome autopsy, but Contagion wrangles more subtle horror out of a camera eye that lingers on mundane objects and surfaces people come into contact with in public spaces. As it tracks the spread of its virus, the sight of a door that someone’s touched suddenly becomes an image from a germaphobe’s sprawling planetary nightmare. If you weren’t using hand sanitizer or thinking about your meat intake before this movie, chances are, you’ll come out of it wanting to do that more.
Contagion is one of the most vivid, realistic films in recent memory to tap into the uniquely modern fear of a pandemic. It’s not just the fear of a deadly global pathogen, which is something that globalization, the ease of air travel, has stoked. It’s also the fear of how society handles the outbreak, as the sick get stigmatized and cynical opportunists like the Krumwiedes of the world attempt to seize on mass hysteria. Obviously, this coronavirus outbreak is something that’s impacting real people and it’s not to be exploited or treated lightly—on a movie website or anywhere else. Yet Contagion, this 9-year-old thriller with an all-star ensemble cast, now looks increasingly more prescient and relevant to what’s happening on Earth.
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