It may seem like just another Outbreak-esque epidemic thriller, but Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is unusually authentic in its depiction of a viral epidemic. The best horror films about viruses and diseases are terrifying because of their realism, and even the CDC contends that Contagion is largely realistic.
The film's production involved the inclusion of real-life virologists and epidemiologists (one of whom was tasked with designing the virus featured in the film) who served as round-the-clock on-set consultants. The emphasis is not necessarily on the disease, which causes seizures and subsequent death, but on the spread and eventual global outbreak. It's a cautionary tale, one that will have you washing your hands every hour like that scene from The Aviator.
The coronavirus pandemic that began making its way across the globe in early 2020 had one strange side effect: a sudden surge in interest for Contagion in rental, torrent, and eventually streaming platforms. While the film was a modest box-office success at the time - tallying $75.7 million in the US to squeak into the top 50 for 2011 - it didn't find a true widespread audience until nearly a decade later, and largely due to unusual circumstances. The details of the drama's fictional outbreak may be alarming, and those details may be scarily accurate - but the film eventually provides a distinct sense of hope, as well. The mortality rate declines, a good vaccine is developed, and normalcy finally peeks around the corner.
‘Contact Tracing,’ A Key Method Of Finding The Path Of A Virus, Is Accurately Depicted
The virologists in Contagion are able to track the disease to a casino in Hong Kong, one that Beth visited on her trip. This is done by using a method called "contact tracing." This process, which includes tracing the virus through paths of social networks and interactions, is widely used during these types of investigations. According to the CDC, contact tracing "gives health authorities a sense of the extent of exposure and is used to develop the public health response in an emergency."
In order to track the origin of a virus or infectious disease, investigators will interview a patient and track down the patient's contacts and family members, all while retracing the patient's steps and screening people along the way. The process is labor intensive and can sometimes be seen as violating privacy, but it's considered a vital tool in outbreak response, especially early on before the virus goes global.
Epidemiologists Say A ‘Contagion’-Like Epidemic ‘Will Almost Certainly Occur’ Eventually
One epidemiologist in particular - Dr. Larry Madoff, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Immunization at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health - believes that a Contagion-like epidemic will occur. (In fact, 2020 brought one such event - though not on the scale of the outbreak in Contagion.) According to Madoff, the likelihood that something like the Nipah virus - a pathogen shared by bats, pigs, and humans (which the film's MEV-1 virus is modeled after) - will break out of its niche and cause a global epidemic is "very believable."
The Outbreak Was Largely Based On The Nipah Virus, Which Attacks The Brain And Lungs
In the film, MEV-1 is a paramyxovirus that infects the lungs and the brain. The filmmakers wanted to depict a virus that was more interesting visually and cinematically than one that only caused the typical cough and fever. The fictional disease, crafted in part by bioinformatics analyst Craig Street, is modeled on a combination of the flu and a virus called Nipah, which causes inflammation of the brain and respiratory disease. (Don't worry: The CDC said there's no way such a virus could exist, as their genomes are not compatible in nature.)
Nipah, however, is a real disease that took 105 lives in Malaysia in 1999 and caused two outbreaks in India in 2001 and 2007. Unlike MEV-1, Nipah has no vaccine.
The Disease’s Spread Is Global, But The Response Is Often Tribal
"I got people, too, Dr. Cheever. We all do."
At first, it might seem a little wild for Mitch (Matt Damon's character) to hole up in his house with a shotgun in order to keep his daughter protected from the virus, or for the CDC's Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) to order his wife Aubrey to evacuate before any official measures are even in place. But it isn't long before the casualty count rises and humanity reaches a breaking point, and people's personal survival and protection instincts kick in.
After going to Hong Kong to investigate the origins of the virus, Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is abducted by her liaison, Sun Feng (Chin Han), until the vaccine is released, ensuring that the rural village in which he grew up - which is overwhelmed with the illness, and made up of mostly children - will be first in line. Later, a mob breaks into Cheever's home while Aubrey is home alone, demanding them to hand over the MEV-1 vaccine (which they don't have).