Vaila’s View: Why ‘Contagion’ is the most realistic pandemic movie

Illustration by Lindsay Hart

Vaila DeYoung, Contributing Writer

Over the course of the past few weeks, as we have been settling into a new sort of lifestyle, turning to films and TV shows in our free time, many of us have chosen to revisit Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller, “Contagion.” 

I can understand why people would be drawn back to rewatch this film now, and after watching it again myself, I am convinced that “Contagion,” is the pandemic movie that comes closest to capturing our reality in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.  

“Contagion” stands out from other pandemic films with its scary realism. The film begins in the incubation period of a deadly pandemic, when the virus, known as MEV-1, is first exposed to the human body and symptoms start to occur. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, the film’s index case, or first documented patient infected by the virus. She contracts the virus while away on a business trip in Hong Kong, and infects other colleagues and later her young son.

MEV-1, like COVID-19, starts with a high fever, coughing and severe headache. Both viruses are upper respiratory diseases, which make them eerily similar in terms of symptoms. However, the fictional MEV-1 virus kills the victim much more quickly than COVID-19, by infecting parts of the brain and causing seizures. 

Our daily lives are similar to those of the characters in “Contagion.” Store shelves are running low on groceries, and people have to practice social distancing to stay safe. 

Much attention to detail is paid to small connections and interactions within the film, allowing the viewer to see how quickly and easily a virus spreads. Every action has a consequence, and “Contagion” shows what happens when hands go unwashed and mouths go uncovered. 

“’Contagion’ focuses on the early infection period, which is why it is different from other pandemic-based movies that tend to fall under a post-apocalyptic setting.” — Vaila DeYoung

“Contagion,” captures the collective thoughts and feelings we all are experiencing, and that’s the biggest reason why it’s the best representation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Characters reminisce and cry over photographs of loved ones, and teenagers dress up for their remote prom nights, just like many people are doing now.

The film also accurately represents the hardworking people working in health care and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn more about the virus and how to contain it. 

A scientist, played by Jennifer Ehle, works to find the cure to the disease and injects herself with what she discovers to be the antidote to MEV-1, risking her own life by exposing herself to her sick father. 

The dedication that scientists, doctors and nurses commit to fighting the spread of the virus in the film heavily reflect the attitude that the professionals have in real life, which was comforting to be reminded of while watching the film. 

Aside from the comparison of “Contagion” to real events, the film has great pacing considering  there are many main and side characters to follow. It doesn’t feel too slow or too fast, and still manages to cover months of time without feeling out of place. 

The visuals and cinematography were actually quite nice, and some of the frames of the scene were extremely well composed and considered. Nothing about the film felt rushed, and everything felt like it had a larger purpose to the narrative. 

This film will keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time with high intensity situations and a fast-paced score. 

Other pandemic films such as “Bird Box” (2018) and “I Am Legend” (2007) take things to and extreme, sensationalizing the plot with monsters or zombies. The premise and execution of “Bird Box” felt a little silly, and the characters didn’t feel realistic or act logically. Similarly, “I Am Legend” fails to hit the mark due to its weak visual effects, and its attempt at raising questions about isolation and spiritual faith. 

“Contagion” focuses on the early infection period, which is why it is different from other pandemic-based movies that tend to fall under a post-apocalyptic setting. More often than not we see the science fiction iteration of what a pandemic looks like, and in a time like this we can find comfort in films like “Contagion,” to make us feel less alone. 

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