Flu season is approaching, which means it’s almost time to break out the vaccines and hand-sanitizer. But another method of preventative care may be a dose of Warner Brothers’ new thriller Contagion, out this weekend in theaters across North America.
The film begins innocuously enough with the sound of a cough in the darkness. But when the cougher herself, played by Hollywood starlet Gwyneth Paltrow, is dead within the next five minutes, you can’t help but pay close attention to who is coughing on whom and who is touching whom for the rest of the film — and, maybe, for the rest of flu season.
Steven Soderbergh directed Contagion, and, like his Academy Award-winning 2000 film Traffic, the film follows the weaving paths of many people as they try to survive this viral epidemic. Ellis Cheever, deputy director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention played by Laurence Fishburne, coordinates the scientists, media and public as the virus spreads from one major metropolis to another. He sends epidemiologist Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis — where Paltrow’s character, Beth Emhoff, died after returning from a business trip in China — to try to stop the virus in its tracks. Meanwhile, World Health Organization agent Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) heads to China to trace the virus’s origins at the same time as virologists and epidemiologists (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin) work to identify the virus and find a cure back in the US. Rounding out the cast is a muckraking blogger with a penchant for conspiracy theories, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who hocks an herbal remedy to his online readership, and lastly, standing in for the normal guy trying to save his family, is Mitch Emhoff, the husband of Paltrow’s character and played by Matt Damon.
Despite the celebrity-laden cast, the real star of the film is the virus itself, dubbed MEV-1 and designed by the film’s scientific consultant Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist and director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity in New York. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns wanted their epidemic bug to be “biologically plausible, but they didn’t just want to do something with respiratory compromise,” Lipkin told me on the 17th floor of the Mailman School of Public Health in Washington Heights last week. He selected nipah virus — a respiratory infection that causes cinematic symptoms including seizures, foaming mouths and neurologic problems — as the inspiration for MEV-1. “It was more interesting than a simple respiratory virus and more plausible than something like a hemorrhagic fever,” he says. Lipkin dove into GenBank to design the chimeric virus, which he created by combining genes from a mixture of bat and pig viruses. He then created a three-dimensional model of the virus’s structure, and a cladistic diagram of its evolutionary progress as it travelled globally.
Not all of these “data” made it into the final film. But it’s clear that this attention to detail clearly laid the groundwork for a scientifically plausible plotline. In addition to creating a realistic pathogen, the film moves in and out of Biosafety Level 4 laboratories, highlights just how hard it is to cultivate a virus and develop a vaccine, and brings the viewer face to face with the grim but necessary nature of animal testing.
As a former scientist, I certainly appreciated the attention to detail. However, some of this focus on scientific realism comes at the expense of emotional gravitas. The sprawling scope, focusing on many people and various scientific aspects of controlling an epidemic, means that we never get to know the characters. When people die in the film — and they do die — I was mostly unaffected. Those dead were just people killed in the epidemic, like the thousands who died in the 2009 swine flu epidemic or the hundreds killed earlier in the decade from SARS.
But maybe that’s the point. Lipkin told me one of the film’s take-away messages is that “infectious diseases hit everyone, irrespective of how famous or how wealthy they are.” But, by staying removed from the characters, the movie goes a step further. When millions of people are dying and there’s no cure, nothing to stop it, our humanity is stripped away. The dead become statistics and, psychologically, we can’t afford to attach ourselves to these characters who have little hope of survival.
You can hear more from my conversation with Lipkin in this month’s podcast. Or go see Contagion this weekend and let us know what you think in the comments section.
Image: Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston) in the thriller ‘Contagion’. Photo by Claudette Barius