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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 19 NOVEMBER 2011 — A mysterious infection grips Hollywood, transmitted rapidly from producers and directors to scriptwriters and actors. It soon spreads to cinemas across the U.S. and abroad, accompanied by cheerleading specialists. The disease is called science. But it’s not necessarily art.

Contagion is Steven Soderberg’s disaster movie about an unknown virus that, inevitably, begins abroad (in the Far East) and rapidly wreaks havoc around the world — though inevitably it is shown largely affecting Americans, who also unsurprisingly emerge as the heroic problem solvers of the piece.

Chin Han and Marion Cotillard in Warner Bros. Pictures' Contagion

For someone fascinated by science and epidemiology, there is plenty to like. Substantially supported with advice from and subsequent debates with experts, the film does a good job of showing the absorbing detective work in tracing the origins, identifying the nature of the infection, tackling its impact and devising a solution.

What was initially brewed up in animals mutates into a fast transmitting, lethal infection in humans; is transmitted through contact; and ultimately requires laboratory work to characterise and fight with a vaccine. Sounds familiar? The most recent flu pandemic offered a taster of far worse future infections that are likely to come.

Contagion offers a sobering reminder about how quick to spread and potent such virus can be, and how basic techniques of hygiene and isolation remain some of the most important frontline defences today.

Laurence Fishburne and Sanjay Gupta in Warner Bros. Pictures' Contagion

Some specialists have rightly expressed concern that the portrayed development within weeks of a vaccine against such a new infection is implausibly rapid, offering false reassurance to the public of salvation from such as yet unknown but probable future threats.

Academic research institutes have bemoaned the minimal credit they receive in the film, their contribution whittled down to a maverick professor who ignores orders and in days manages to crack the viral code. Instead, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta single-handedly does most of the work — including an implausible initial self-injection test on herself by a researcher after a single ape she jabbed with vaccine prototype 57 briefly survives an encounter with the virus.

While the pharmaceutical industry is all but ignored, it should perhaps be grateful that for once it is not made the villain of the piece, conducting unethical trials or gouging patients with high prices. Likewise, the filmmakers deserve credit for courageously showing the need to test experimental vaccines in primates — something that makes animal rights extremists grimace.

Jude Law in Warner Bros. Pictures' Contagion

In fact, although there is some exploration of the personal ethical dilemmas and temptation to queue-jump of CDC officials, the only real villain in Contagion is a journalist — or rather a venal blogger, fair enough game for the early twenty-first century.

There is plenty that is plausible and well grounded in reality in the film, although the random method used to decide how to distribute initial scarce quantities of newly produced vaccine raises an eyebrow.

The chaos as large numbers of patients fall victim is also under-explored.

All these are valid points, but somewhat miss the point. Contagion is supposed to be entertainment, but it ends up wearing its largely accurate learning a little too earnestly. The production team clearly did their homework, but in the process end up showing too much of their workings and not enough synthesis into a final distilled essence.

Kate Winslet in Warner Bros. Pictures' Contagion

Nowhere is this clearer than Kate Winslet as a stressed CDC official pedagogically explaining the "R nought" of the new virus — how many new cases an infected person will trigger— to unconvincingly clueless Mid Western public health officials. Scientists may love it; to me, it looks deeply contrived and rather unnecessary as well as implausible.

Overall, some of the most interesting dramatic elements — the ethical dilemmas, the conspiracy theorists — get subsumed, while too much superfluous breathlessly executed subplots, from infidelity to kidnapping, end up confusing rather than adding much to the mix. 

Contagion informs but doesn’t always grip.

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. He last wrote on the film The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn for Culturekiosque.

Headline image: Jennifer Ehle in Warner Bros. Pictures' Contagion

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