REVIEW: Contagion

Contagion official movie poster ©2011 Warner Brothers, all rights reserved.

“Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone.” The austere slogan of the new film Contagion mirrors the gripping subject matter of the latest addition to the pandemic disaster movie club. One of the most science-oriented films to be released in the last few years, Contagion follows the path of several scientists, public health workers, and ordinary citizens as a full-fledged pandemic breaks out from an unknown virus. It explores scientific, moral, social and ethical questions for how we would prepare as a modern society if such a tragedy ever struck us. Additionally, Contagion is a cinematic ode to the visual and technical wonders of modern science, on full display here, both in the storyline and the beatifully-designed sets and costumes. For a full ScriptPhD review, including information on the behind-the-scenes science consultants that worked with the film’s producers to create scientific realism, click “continue reading” below.

REVIEW: Contagion
ScriptPhD Grade: B-

Contagion is one of those all-star Hollywood packages that seem too good to be true, and in this case it is. It’s clear that Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brokovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) paid attention to his advisors and took the time to get the science right, but perhaps he did so at the cost of any real drama making its way through the movie. The star-studded cast, which includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Lawrence Fishburne, may have delivered great performances in their original storylines, but the final cut is such an odd mash up of actionless sequences that it’s impossible to stay invested in any of their stories.

Dr. Leona Orantes (Marion Cotillard) investigates the origins of the virus causing a pandemic in the film Contagion.

When Beth Ernhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home to Minneapolis, her bad case of let lag takes a perilous turn for the worse, and two days later, she is dead. To the shock and dismay of her grieving husband Thomas (Matt Damon), doctors don’t know the cause. Soon, the contagion spreads around our increasingly interconnected world, and a pandemic ensues. Scientists at the United States Centers for Disease Control soon take on deciphering the code of a rapidly mutating virus along with quelling the simultaneously rising tide of public panic. While Deputy Director Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishbourne) allays public panic, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is sent directly into harm’s way. Concurrently, WHO Dr. Leona Orantes (Marion Cotillard) delegates solving the maze of clues that will eventually lead back to what ordinated the virus. While the doctors race time to find a cure, their efforts are thwarted by extremist activist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), whose conspiracy theories that the public isn’t getting the whole story from the US Government, which sets of a wave of paranoia more dangerous than the virus itself.

Scientists rejoice! As a realistic depiction of a bird flu epidemic, Contagion attempts to right some of the scientific wrongs of Outbreak, which played more like a conventional zombie movie than a warning parable about the global reach of modern infectious diseases. Contagion was a difficult review for ScriptPhD to compose, because we’ve always marveled at the overt inaccuracies of its predecessor: an unauthorized person walking out of a secured government lab with a sample of a deadly virus (without gloves no less!), scientists and civilians walking into a Biosafety Level 4 lab without proper personal protective equipment, an unrealistic rate of viral spread, and we could go on and on…

The scientific details of Contagion were pinpoint accurate, including research done in a sealed Biosafety Level 4 laboratory, pictured here with Jennifer Ehle as Dr. Ally Hextall.

Thanks to the involvement of Participant Media and Warner Brothers, Contagion is a science film masquerading as a public service announcement to raise awareness about the possibility of such an outbreak and show that widespread panic is more dangerous than the virus itself. We applaud this goal. But too many minutes were invested in forcing actors to deliver technical language, along with clunky lines explaining their meaning. The balance between scientific accuracy and storytelling always has to ultimately tip in the balance of storytelling—the lynchpin of compelling films across all genres.

Showing scientists in realistic settings is noble and important, but lab work doesn’t qualify as action, and unfortunately for the viewing audience, that’s as good as it gets for this ‘action-thriller.’ As an example, Marion Cotillard’s Dr. Orantes is introduced in a tense moment of the film with a minute-long montage where we watch her take meetings—she’s literally sitting across a desk and talking to people—but we don’t get to hear what she’s saying because the awkward and uneven score plays over it. This is about the most boring visual montage I’ve ever seen in a movie. Then she gets thrown in a van and we don’t see her for another hour.

There’s a dark secret at the heart of how the virus afflicts Beth Ernhoff, but that drama isn’t allowed to play out in any meaningful way because there are five other plotlines to keep track of. Matt Damon gives some great scenes dealing with her death. But too many emotional punches were pulled: he skips over the death of his son to focus on somewhat-comically keeping his daughter locked away from the boy next door.

Thomas Emhoff (Matt Damon) must contend with quarantines imposed after a deadly pandemic strikes in a scene from Contagion.

Fishburne and Winslet go a good job introducing the audience to the Center for Disease Control and the ridiculous pressures applied to government officials in their position, but don’t look for any happy endings in a movie this insistent on accurate depiction. Finally, Soderbergh is attempting to outdo himself in terms of the number of plotlines he can weave into a cohesive story, following up on his best director Oscar nod for Traffic. Where Traffic succeeded in integrating pieces into a cohesive whole, Contagion stretched my emotional attention span too thin. As the non-linear plot skips among all these amazing actors, the audience is constantly having to recall who they are and what they want.

This became comical at the wrong moment when the film returned to Cotillard’s character teaching schoolchildren in some Chinese village where she’s been held hostage. We are supposed to feel bad for these villagers, now that Marion has become one of them. But the theater was filled with a wave of frenzied whispers as entertainment bloggers consulted their neighbors on what she was doing there in the first place.

Speaking of writers and bloggers, Jude Law’s self-promoting freelancer Alan Krumwiede drew plenty of inside chuckles from the press screening crowd as a blogger seeking to profit from conspiracy theories about the government’s ties to pharmaceutical companies. His character is clearly a tongue-in-cheek homage to biological warfare NGO Sunshine Project muckraker and blogger Edward Hammond. This feeds into the film’s public service message to encourage us to trust our government in a big disaster situation, but it runs counter to the logic of movies that the little guy is corrupt and The Man is actually watching out for us.

If you’re interested in the subject matter or are fascinated by portrayal of science in film, Contagion is well worth the ticket price, but otherwise you’ll probably see it on Netflix in about three months. Contagion is hands-down the most realistic epidemic movie we’ve ever seen, but the film’s competing interests kept it from succeeding in any of its other lofty ambitions. Ultimately, it just wasn’t contagious enough.

Official Trailer:

Contagion goes into wide release on September 9, 2011 in theaters nationwide.

Natasha K. Griffith, MS, director of biosafety and biocontainment at the University of California at Los Angeles, and a world-renowned expert in training scientists to handle the most dangerous pathogens, consulted on all of the laboratory set design and high-tech suits that the actors wore during the filming. We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her work with Contagion. Tell us a little bit about your expertise and specialty.

Natasha Griffith, MS: My expertise is in high containment laboratory design and management, primarily for Biosafety Level 3 and Biosafety Level 4 labs.

SPhD: Excellent. What kind of work, specifically, did you do for the film production crew? What were you asked to contribute?

NG: I was hired as a technical biosafety consultant. I helped with set design, that is making sure that the set was designed according to regulations, and to make sure that it matched actual BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs. Both are presented in the movie. I worked with the actors that were wearing containment suits at Level 4, and made sure that they knew what they were doing and felt comfortable in the suits. It can be a little difficult if you’ve never worn one of the suits before to just stick you into one and expect you to know what to do. I also oversaw the script, and made sure that all written lines were technically correct, and worked with the set designer to design the Level 3 and Level 4 suits. We also worked closely with the props department to make sure that the items used in the laboratory scenes and that the actors were working with were accurate research-wise. Before the filming even took place, I worked with the set and production designers to make sure that the labs were set up correctly and in place, including all the appropriate biosafety signs, and items in the freezers, and so on.

SPhD: Can you explain to people who are going to see the movie what the difference is between a Level 4 and a Level 3 lab?

NG: A Level 4 lab is truly what we call a “suit lab,” which is where the majority of this movie is presented. People are working in fully enclosed suits, so there’s no contact with the laboratory environment at all. All the air is provided through an external air line into the suit, so that people are not breathing in any air from the lab that might be contaminated with the agent they’re working with. It’s the highest possible level of containment that houses new agents, agents that have a very high mortality, and those that we don’t know much about or have a cure for. A Level 3 lab is one step down from Level 4, so there are different types of personal protective equipment that are used. In this case, the suits are not actually completely isolated from the laboratory environment, but the suits do filter the laboratory air through a special HEPA filter and eliminate any contaminants the scientist might have been exposed to. The agensts housed in a Level 3 lab are usually airborne [infectious disease agents], but we usually have some type of cure or treatment for them.

SPhD: Were there any moments during the filming of Contagion where you saw something terribly inaccurate being filmed and had to correct it? Can you give us examples?

NG: There were some details like this, but for the most part, the people I worked with were trying their best to be very accurate. Changing things wasn’t usually a big problem. A bigger challenge was explaining the highly technical information in such a way that the crew and actors could all understand what was going on and why certain things were important or something had to look a certain way. Usually, once we agreed on those big picture things, changing other small lab-specific details wasn’t a big problem.

SPhD: There have been a host of “pandemic” films that have come out in the last 10-15 years, dealing with global-scale pandemics, something really scary happening. And the fact is, we live in a global world, where in one day, you can travel across half the world (as is depicted in Contagion). The amount of stuff we touch in a given day is truly scary, which is another point the film touches on. In your opinion, having worked in this field, and all the things you’ve seen, is this storyline a Hollywood fantasy or something we should genuinely be investing our research money in and preparing for?

NG: Well, there’s always the possibility of a pandemic, and as you mentioned before, you truly can travel from one end of the world to the other in a very short period of time. So, anything that is new and emerging in Africa or Asia could be here tomorrow, so the risk definitely exists. Research money is obviously being invested already into preparedness, which is really the best way to prepare for such an event. I would say it’s definitely not a Hollywood fantasy. It is something that could happen, and something that we should keep in mind, but not something that we should be paranoid about. We have a lot of things that are always happening, and most of them don’t result in a huge pandemic. But you could say that one day, it might happen. One thing that really impressed me about Contagion was that they really, really tried hard to stay true to the science and what would happen if a pandemic actually happened.

The filmmakers of Contagion also consulted with Dr. Ian Lipkin, one of the world’s foremost microbe hunters and a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. In addition to suggesting the movie’s plot might be triggered by an outbreak of a virus similar to Nipah, a deadly virus that has, on occasion, migrated from animals to people, Dr. Lipkin provided recollection of his work with the SARS epidemic in Beijing for the WHO and coached Contagion actors on the practices and procedures of scientific research. Here is a video of Dr. Lipkin discussing his work on the film, and why its broader message is so important for raising pandemic awareness and inspiring the next generation of science researchers:

~*Stephen Compson*~

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