Contagion: Going Viral

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Refusing to eat the communal peanuts at airport bars, an extra bottle of hand sanitizer, the sudden usage of a word like “fomite” – spotting an individual who has recently watched the movie Contagion is as simple as recognizing the symptoms. Contagion, released September 9, 2011, is a chilling look at what happens when a lethal virus transmits from animal to human, and explodes into a global epidemic. Sure, other films have featured viruses taking over the world (turning humans into zombies, for example) but Contagion is different. The film’s fictional world is much more real and much more plausible. 

Contagion follows a varied cast of characters, from an epidemiological intelligence officer to a conspiracy-theory blogger, among others. But audiences are likely to be fascinated with the film’s lead character: the virus. The source of the virus is revealed in the closing moments of the film: a bat, which transmits the virus to a pig, which transmits the virus to a human. “More than three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases originate when microbes jump from wildlife to humans,” wrote W. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist and chief science advisor for the film. 

In Contagion the human host then infects several others in a casino and the virus continues to spread. Every touch from an infected individual lets the virus travel farther, from a bowl of peanuts in an airport to a handshake at a business meeting. At one point, an infected character is told, “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.” It might seem overdramatic but the film’s characters make it clear: the threat is real. 

The real science in Contagion is sometimes overt (explained in dialogue, for instance), sometimes implied (foresting machines and cut down trees in the bat’s habitat) but it is never not part of the storyline. Science is the backbone of the film’s plot, which explains Contagion’s three science consultants. The challenge in Contagion is to not overly explain in the film’s 1 hour and 45 minute runtime, while also providing enough “why” and “how” so the viewer is not lost during the rapid pace of the pandemic. (Viewers who need more pandemic science can visit the film’s social action page.)

Contagion succeeds in this challenge. Science is seamlessly woven into the dialogue and storyline, showing up when it makes absolute sense, as well as to heighten the stakes. Dr. Erins Mears, the epidemiological intelligence officer played by Kate Winslet, is one of the film’s chief sources of infectious disease knowledge. She explains R0, fomites, and the fact that people touch their faces several thousand times per day. Other characters from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization explain how viruses are spread, how the film’s virus mutated, and what scientists can do to stop the pandemic. But each explanation, each bit of scientific fact resides in dialogue that belongs in the film and belongs in that exact moment.

The end result is a film praised for not only its cast’s performance and captivating storyline, but also for its realistic portrayal of pandemics and scientific content, which proves how successful a science-fueled film can be.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.