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 its not necessarily art.
Contagion is Steven Soderbergs 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.
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
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'
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
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
Kate Winslet in Warner Bros. Pictures'
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 doesnt 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
of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn for
Headline image: Jennifer Ehle in Warner Bros. Pictures'
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