The reason we’re drawn to horror movies is the same reason that many of us ride roller coasters: It’s a simulation of mortal danger without any of the consequences, a feeling like at any second we might fly off the rails and plunge to a grisly death, while knowing deep down that of course we won’t.
That is not what watching the 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion feels like in March 2020, as panic around COVID-19 spreads as quickly and thoroughly as the virus itself.
At the time of this writing, 10 Americans have died from the coronavirus and 100 have contracted it. It already feels like we might fly off the roller coaster, so much so that some of us (well, some of you) have stopped eating Chinese food and stopped drinking Coronas, just in case. Watching Contagion, a film made with the goal of depicting a global pandemic as realistically as possible, feels like riding the rickety old Coney Island Cyclone a few days after it’s finally been condemned for violating safety standards. The assurance that you’ll long outlive the experience is newly downgraded from Almost Definitely to a firm Probably.
Although our collective morbid fascination with death has driven Contagion back into the top-10 list on iTunes, please heed this warning: Watching this movie right now will only make you feel worse.
In all fairness, the movie isn’t without some measure of relief. The cineaste in me appreciated watching an expertly crafted Steven Soderbergh thriller. Gwyneth Paltrow perishing right away lets you know that anything can happen, while the inexplicable presence of comedian Demetri Martin also signals that all bets are off. More to the point about relief, however, the disease in the film, MEV-1, has a mortality rate “in the low 20s,” compared with COVID-19’s 2%. That’s at least 10 times less deadly! Also, while the movie starts with a terrifyingly normal-sounding cough (Noo! That’s what I sound like!), the speed at which MEV-1 spreads and turns its victims into foamy-mouthed worm food is apparently the least realistic part of the film.
However, if the only comfort from watching this movie right now is that knowing COVID-19 isn’t quite as scary as a fictitious disease that wipes out tens of millions of lives, that is cold comfort indeed.
Now, on to the aspects of the movie that are less comfortable.
Similarities in the disease’s origin
In Contagion, the disease that leaves you sneezing and seizing until your brain fills with mush originates in Hong Kong. As we only learn in the final moments, it’s the result of a bat virus mutating with a pig virus, before a chef handling that unlucky pig encounters Gwyneth Paltrow without washing his hands. (For the love of God, always wash your hands!)
Meanwhile, back in our world, COVID-19 also originated in China, specifically Wuhan in the Hubei province, before spreading to 60 countries and counting. Although scientists have yet to pinpoint exactly how the virus came into being, beyond the fact that it wasn’t created in a lab as a biological weapon, they say that it shows similarities to known coronaviruses in animals, particularly bats. Having this information in mind while watching the bat at the end of the film accidentally feed its germs to a pig is not good for your sanity.
We are each of us as vulnerable as tiny baby birds
In order to curb our chances of contracting the coronavirus, The New York Times and many other sources have urged us to stop touching our faces. While trying to internalize this warning, it’s surreal to hear Kate Winslet’s Epidemic Intelligence Service specialist in the film expand on that warning by explaining, “The average person touches their face two or three thousand times a day.” Especially while many of us are finding out how impossible it is to stop touching our faces.
Contagion seems designed to make germaphobes of us all. Soderbergh’s camera lingers every chance it gets on surfaces touched by virus-carrying fingers: credit cards, touchscreens, subway poles, and perhaps most disturbingly for lovers of bar snacks, a peanut bowl. Even though, unlike MEV-1, more than 80% of cases of COVID-19 are mild, the people with those mild cases might not even know they’re sick and could be out there spreading the virus further. This movie really brings home the point that any public space is basically a massive petri dish. How are we not all getting sick all the time?
The spread of misinformation
The characters in Contagion have a hard time accurately estimating how far the virus has spread early on because “people are staying home hoping to get better.” As depicted in the film, getting accurate data about a virus at the same time it’s just starting to spread is next to impossible. Complicating matters is the fact that bad actors will inevitably spread misinformation on purpose at the same time. Jude Law represents this element in the film with his unrealistically handsome Alex Jones-type grifter, who steers his panicked followers toward the real cure for MEV-1.
What is truly terrifying about tracking this character in 2020 is realizing, in the real world, how much misinformation is coming from the president of the United States. At first, Donald Trump’s main message around the coronavirus seemed to revolve around the fact that he should in no way be held responsible for anything having to do with it that isn’t positive. This was after his downplaying of the virus’s threat to U.S. citizens led to bipartisan frustration, yet still before he called the media-amplified fear around COVID-19 “the Democrats’ new hoax.” And while the film is wisely, painfully realistic about the many months that it takes to find and distribute a vaccine for something like MEV-1, Trump seems neither to comprehend nor accept what scientists are telling him. His habit of only feeding his supporters good news at all times, be it real or imagined, will surely be at odds with this reality.
“President Donald Trump” is clearly not something that Steven Soderbergh saw coming.
The bureaucracy of disease
The president in Contagion may not himself be a source of misinformation, but the government still has a lot of other problems that remain extremely relevant today. We see government officials debating when and how much information to tell the public, and others leaking out the real intel to their family members so at least they can be adequately prepared. But what’s more terrifying—and something that is reflected back at us every day of our enfolding public health crisis—are the typical banal arguments that continue even in an emergency.
The film’s scientists and government officials argue over procuring the budget to do what needs to be done, as though the fate of the country didn’t hang in the balance. This same bureaucratic gridlock is happening offscreen right now, with House and Senate leaders at loggerheads over an emergency package to combat the U.S. spread of coronavirus, “including disputes over vaccine availability and hospital reimbursement costs.” Oh well, at least we’re doing better than Iran, where multiple senior government officials have contracted the virus.
The bottom line is that watching this movie will stress you out even more than reading this article probably has. You will start worrying whether you have a high fever or a hard time swallowing during and afterward.
So consider opting instead for a more current, less tense movie like Knives Out or Jumanji: The Next Level to take your mind off the madness.
Unless you’re Donald Trump, in which case you should definitely watch Contagion right this instant.