Contagion is a thriller about a virus that rapidly spreads to become a global epidemic. There aren’t enough coffins. Gangs roam neighborhoods like ours because police have abandoned their posts, fearful of exposure. Garbage fills the streets because sanitation workers are dying. As scientists work feverishly to understand the virus and develop a vaccine, public panic unravels the fabric of civil society, fueled by terror and rattled by false claims of a homeopathic cure promoted by a charismatic charlatan.
The movie has grossed $76 million worldwide since it opened on September 9th. It has all the elements a successful movie needs: a just-believable dystopian vision of the future, flawed good guys, an evil schemer, suspense, heroic action…the works.
And while it’s an action-thriller first and foremost, you don’t have to concentrate hard to notice that it also shows:
- Why the Federal government is necessary: its authority to communicate, negotiate and work with other nations to solve a global problem; its ability to exert authority across state lines and to marshal resources immediately to protect its citizens from peril with no expectation of profit.
- How scientific research is iterative and complicated, not bumbling or malicious. Research is conducted by scientists—normal people with normal lives—who are curious, disciplined and committed in pursuit of their aim: to understand the fictional MEV-1 virus and develop a vaccine. (Complaints from experts about the substance of the science notwithstanding, the research process is not portrayed as a magical one.)
- The difference between science-based knowledge and junk science and the difficulty of distinguishing one from the other, illustrating the unfortunate fact that just because you really really believe something doesn’t mean it’s true.
And finally, it takes your breath away—just briefly during the final montage—when you see the scientist deposit the MEV-1 virus in the Biosafety Level Four freezer, along with the SARS, Smallpox, and EBOLA viruses. Right then, you can imagine the incalculable number of lives saved through the hard work of scientists, the collaboration among industries, health professions and governments, and the commitment of government workers.
Our country is politically polarized. The economy is teetering. Distrust of government and its employees is at an all-time high. Scientists are criticized as biased money-grubbers. And Websites promise us cures for balding, fat thighs and loneliness for $19.99 or less.
Contagion is primarily a popular movie intended to entertain and distract us. It does this successfully. Its added value is that it portrays for a mass audience hopeful glimpses of what government can accomplish when we recognize that we live in a real—not imaginary—world best understood by the methods of science and free of false prophets who claim miraculous powers that will liberate us from the hard work before us.
*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*