Contagion is a jarring, eye-opening film with a notably offbeat, unique score (it’s largely electronic) – and given the fact that our world is overdue for a deadly pandemic, it’s also quite frightening. On its pandemic flu website, the Centers for Disease Control has publicly addressed Contagion and some of the issues raised by the film (CDC Responds to Contagion).
…disease outbreaks are natural plots for compelling entertainment. But life and death situations and heroic scientists battling against time and heavy odds to track the source of killer diseases and contain them before they wipe out entire communities are not just movie plots. They really happen. And the real stories of CDC′s disease detectives and their investigations are just as exciting as anything you′ll see in a theater. In just the last 10 years, CDC scientists and researchers have played a role in understanding and halting the spread of SARS, quickly creating a vaccine for the H1N1 virus, and tracing deadly foodborne outbreaks to their source. (Source: CDC Responds to Contagion)
Isolated parts of Contagion are rather graphic, too – and I usually don’t take note of graphic scenes on the big screen; I’m admittedly rather jaded, having seen so many horror movies. Contagion contained some surprisingly disturbing visuals. Two examples that come to mind are deceased victims of the outbreak, the first one being an extended shot of a child’s face, eyes open. Second was another uncomfortably long shot of Beth Emhoff, the first victim (portrayed by Gwenyth Paltrow), this time during an autopsy. Her dead open eyes stared vacantly toward the camera as her scalp was being peeled away from the skull during the grisly exploratory procedure. Both of these scenes appeared within the first ten minutes of the film. Others are talking about the Contagion autopsy scene:
There is a scene in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s global mega-pandemic thriller, in which the scalp of a dead patient—played by one of the film’s biggest stars—is sliced open during an autopsy. A flap of marbled flesh flops limply over her forehead; in the screening I attended, this was definitely the moment that elicited the most grossed-out gasps. (Source:
‘Contagion’ Isn’t Just a Thriller… from The New Republic)
Contagion is full of shots likely to make germaphobes cringe; during the first quarter of the film, there are numerous closeups of people touching or handling everyday objects: things that tend to be touched by numerous individuals, including doorknobs, the poles on a bus or subway, drinking glasses, etc. Such items can become vectors in a global pandemic:
Soderbergh repeatedly uses the cinemographic style of lingering and focusing on the items and objects which are touched by the infected and become vectors (fomites) to infect other people.
Contagion is the kind of movie that could conceivably create new survivalists; you will probably consider stockpiling bottled water and canned food at least once while watching it. The film introduces us to previously unfamiliar medical terminology associated with the spread of infectious diseases; e.g., fomite and R0 (pronounced “R-naught”) – a variable used in viral mathematics. According to Contagion, the average person touches his or her face two to three times per waking minute, on average! The virus is so deadly that researchers cannot get the virus to grow among living cells in a petri dish in order to study it; it kills the host tissue. This obstacle is eventually overcome.
Contagion illustrates existential threat in the form of a pandemic, as well as a number of themes that are ancillary to pandemic, including crowd psychology and collective behavior leading to mass hysteria and breakdown of social order. [Unrelated: A funny infographic of Fox News]
About Contagion (2011)
Contagion is a 2011 American medical thriller film directed by Steven Soderbergh. The film has an ensemble cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Bryan Cranston. Contagion follows the rapid progress of a lethal indirect contact transmission virus (fomite transmission) that kills within days. As the fast-moving pandemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. As the virus spreads around the world, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart… The film had a production budget of $60 million, and filming took place in countries around the world. It premiered on September 3, 2011 at the 68th Venice Film Festival and was publicly released on September 9, 2011 in the United States, Canada, Italy, Hong Kong, and four other territories.
Contagion plot summary
Soon after her return from a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwenyth Paltrow) dies from what is a flu or some other type of infection; her young son soon follows. Husband Mitch (Matt Damon), however, seems immune. Thus begins the global spread of a deadly infection. For doctors and administrators at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control [Wikipedia]), several days pass before anyone realizes the extent or gravity of the new infection. They must first identify the type of virus in question and then find a means of combating it, a process that will likely take several months. As the contagion spreads to millions of people worldwide, societal order begins to break down as people panic.
As it turns out, the truth about viruses really CAN make a person panic, if a little time is taken to learn exactly what a virus is and what a virus can do.
Viruses are the most populous entity on earth; there are more viruses than there are bacteria. As you are reading this post, a virtually infinite, innumerable, certainly uncountable number of viruses are doing their thing all over the planet. One trait viruses share with truly living organisms is that they slowly evolve, gradually adapting to their environment. As a result, every so often – about once every couple of hundred years – a virus evolves into a form that is extremely, severely potent to human tissue. There is absolutely no doubt that this will happen again; it’s only a matter of time before the next killer virus appears among us.
Is a virus really alive?
Opinions differ on whether the virus is a true form of life, or whether viruses are merely organic structures that interact with living organisms. Viruses have been referred to as “organisms at the edge of life” – there is no scientific consensus about whether viruses actually live. A virus resembles a living organism in more than one way: they possess genes, they evolve by natural selection, and they reproduce by creating multiple copies of themselves through self-assembly. But the virus also differs from all other creatures in at least two important ways. Although viruses do have genes, they do not have a true cellular structure – and cells are often considered to be the basic unit or building block of life. Viruses do not have their own metabolism, and they are powerless alone; a virus requires a host cell in order to produce anything.
Resources: Contagion, 2011 medical thriller
- Contagion – IMDb (Rating: 72), Wikipedia
- How ‘Contagion’ spread to the big screen – CNN
- Review: CONTAGION – Daily Film Fix
- ‘Contagion’ Isn’t Just a Thriller. It’s a Defense of Big Government. – The New Republic
- Marion Cotillard – IMDb, Wikipedia – a beautiful brunette French actress
- Viral Math: R-Naught and Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness – Dan Zarella: The Social Media Scientist
Pandemics, related subjects
Viral mathematics (medical)
- Mathematical Modeling of Wildlife and Virus Zoonoses – NIMBioS Investigative Workshop – National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) – Excerpt: Modern biology has become more and more driven by the need for mathematical and quantitative methods to elucidate general phenomena arising from the complexity of interactions on the numerous spatial, temporal and hierarchical scales at which biological systems operate. The continuing expansion of experimental and observational methods which generate tremendous amounts of biological data require new mathematical methods and computational approaches to allow us to find patterns and evaluate hypotheses for how the biological world came to be and how it might change in the future.
- Viral Immunology from Math, a review of Virus Dynamics, a theoretical biology book (PDF)
- Books about viral mathematics on Amazon.com
Mathematical models of immune effector responses to viral
infections: Virus control versus the development of pathology (by Dominik Wodarz) Article abstract: This article reviews mathematical models which have investigated the importance of lytic and non-lytic immune responses for the control of viral infections. Lytic immune responses ﬁght the virus by killing infected cells, while non-lytic immune responses ﬁght the virus by inhibiting viral replication while leaving the infected cell alive. The models suggest which types or combinations of immune responses are required to resolve infections which vary in their characteristics, such as the rate of viral replication and the rate of virus-induced target cell death. This framework is then applied to persistent infections and viral evolution. It is investigated how viral evolution and antigenic escape can inﬂuence the relative balance of lytic and non-lytic responses over time, and how this might correlate with the transition from an asymptomatic infection to pathology. This is discussed in the specific context of hepatitis C virus infection. (© 2005 Elsevier B.V.)
The other type of viral math (media, not medical)
- The Math of Viral: Trying to use power laws and Metcalfe’s Law to understand how viral marketing actually works – Noah Brier
- Understanding Viral Growth [Marketing Math] – HubSpot Blog (Internet marketing)
- The science behind viral marketing (video) – SlideShare