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The coming of Contagion: A different kind of killer virus movie?

Okay, there’s another movie coming out about a killer virus that spreads across the planet — usually wiping out most of the extras and leaving only a few select movie stars.

This one is Contagion, by Steven Soderbergh, due out in a few days.

I have to admit I do love these kind of movies, even if they are usually ridiculous and often rife with all sorts of scientific and medical errors.

Also, it kind of irks me that few get as excited about the real massive killers out there right now like AIDS, TB and malaria. And that something like this kind of thing happens every year — it’s called flu season — and nobody gets that excited or terrified about that either.

But a friend and science-writing colleague, Laurie Garrett, assures me that this time it’s going to be different. Garrett, one of the top public health and pandemic journalists out there, worked with the filmmakers on Contagion. This is what she has to say, from her blog, about being asked to consult for the movie project:

I was worried. Hollywood and television have long portrayed contagious diseases in roughly the same way as they’ve treated vampires, zombies, space aliens and radiation: Terrifying entities incomprehensibly visited upon innocent humans with catastrophic outcomes for the entire species. Depictions of scientists haven’t been much better. If something truly evil happens in a Hollywood creation odds are it’s executed by a serial killer, scientist, or scientist-that-is-a-serial-killer. The only consistently “good” Hollywood scientists are those that work in police forensics labs.

Despite her misgivings, Garrett agreed to work as a consultant to the filmmakers for Contagion. She says it is definitely based on an extraordinarily virulent bug that spreads fast. But the science is solid, she says, and there are some valuable lessons contained in the drama. Garrett says:

I have worked on the movie as one of its two key science consultants, trying to ensure that this time Hollywood would get it right. Judging by the final cut, which I viewed in a Manhattan VIP screening room in early July alongside Hollywood icon Mike Nichols, “Contagion” will be the first blockbuster Hollywood motion picture to accurately portray what is likely to happen if the world is slammed by a pandemic involving a highly virulent organism.

I put a lot of stock in Garrett’s perspective on these sorts of things. I am looking forward to seeing the movie, no matter what. But I can’t help but remain skeptical about whether or not it can be both blockbuster entertaining without exaggerating the threat. I’ll reserve judgment until I see it, of course.

A film reviewer for the LA Times said Contagion “takes science seriously.” That sounds good, until you think about it. Sounds kinda like someone saying they take reality seriously. Anyway, we’ll see.

One thing that the film could accomplish is make people a bit more aware of just how connected we all are on this planet, microbially speaking. As this story in USA Today said, all of the crew came away from Contagion washing their hands more and covering their mouths when they coughed.

That’s not a bad lesson to learn. Next, I hope Hollywood can figure out how to inspire us to be just as freaked about those dying in poor countries from boring diseases, poverty and injustice — even when they can’t spread it here.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.