Film Review: Contagion

Recently, a film entered the main stream cinemas, which attracted large crowds of people as it covers a topic that really hits the spirit of the time. Contagion is a film about a world-wide outbreak of a disease. Being a research scientist myself, I am always very sceptical about such movies as they are often very far from the truth.

I was uncertain if the film would be a reincarnation of other films of the catastrophe genre such as Outbreak, or if it would really captivate me with some scientific accuracy.

With a star cast including Matt Daemon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law, the film is bound to attract many people to the cinema and I was scared that it would not live up to its expectations as Hollywood often sacrifices reality and superimposes its own take on things to enhance entertainment value.

But the film was bound to be somewhat special as they had scientific advisors to create a scenario as accurate and truthful as possible and present it to the public. Epidemiologists as well as cell biologists advices the producers of the film and I was thrilled to see if Hollywood could get it right this time.

The film started off well and very factual. An outbreak of a mysterious disease in Hong Kong and other places in the world quickly made it into the media. The disease had a mortality rate of over 30% and seemed to spread quickly with cohorts all over the world. The science was actually explained really well  in the film and I got ecstatic when they showed the labs in the film, which actually contained equipment that I am using in my research. That aspect was highly realistic and accurate.

Furthermore, the film explained really accurately how the disease can be transmitted and the way the disease spread and how people died in the move was also very realistic and truthful. Moreover, many of the protagonists died in the film, making it less of a happy Hollywood film.

The story had several parallel plots. There was a story of a father loosing his wife in the United States, there was the story of an officer of the World Health Organisation trying to pinpoint the outbreak of the disease, the story of government officials in the USA combating the scientist trying to find a cure and an apparently ruthless free-lance journalist representing the public media. These different aspects gave the film a good flavour of what could happen if such an outbreak occurred.

Scientists finally found a vaccination for the virus that already killed millions of people all over the world and again, the way this is explained in the film is highly realistic.

The film is a mixture of a narrative and a news report, which in my opinion gives it a very captivating flavour. It is less sensational than other movies and more factual, which I absolutely loved. People who like sensational films might get disappointed, as the truth is a little colder and has less feelings attached than the fantasy worlds some other films portrait.

The topic in this film is scary. We need not forget that large parts of the human population were killed by the plague during the medieval ages and that the last huge pandemic, the Spanish flu, was as recent as 1918. The Spanish Influenza killed an estimate of 50 million people and over 500 million people (a quarter of the world population at the time) was infected.

The plague in contrast was caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis), luckily it can now be treated by common antibiotics.

Against a virus we have few weapons and if we do not have vaccinations, they can very easily be deadly. Antibiotics can only be used against bacterial infections.

The debates about misusing and overusing antibiotics these days are serious and our weapons against billions of years of evolution are limited.

Maybe the film will raise some awareness in people…

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