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After traveling to Milan to cover Fashion Week, I was asked to “self-isolate” for 14 days upon returning home due to an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy, so I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Don’t worry, I’m fine! Well, at least I thought I was fine, until I made the terrible decision to watch Contagion.
If things were going to get bad, which it sounds like they seriously could, I wanted to have an idea of how this was all going to play out, specifically the absolute, most batshit crazy, Hollywood-concocted, worst-case scenario: a nasty virus that kills 26 million people, including Gwyneth Paltrow, faster than you can say “Goop!”
I’m not alone. According to Warner Bros., Contagion is the second-hottest movie in its catalogue (up from No. 270 in December), bested only by the Harry Potter movies. The film is also trending on Amazon Prime Video and was in my iTunes “Top Movies” carousel as of last night.
Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins, recently bought the film with his girlfriend, director Lulu Wang, and said it was like “watching a documentary.” Okay, sure: Contagion is timely. But does that mean you should watch it right now? I would say: Hard no. Not even the trailer.
Contagion premiered in 2011, shortly after the swine flu pandemic. The cast was stacked: there’s Gwyneth, who dies in the first 15 minutes but gives the performance of a lifetime, plus Matt Damon, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston — even Demetri Martin plays a scientist! At the time, it wasn’t a blockbuster, but critics praised its accuracy. Director Steven Soderbergh and his team reportedly went to “unprecedented lengths” to fact-check its script, hiring a panel of “nationally renowned virologists” and epidemiologists as consultants.
Watching the film, there were admittedly many moments when I thought to myself: “Oh God, this is literally happening right now.” As the name implies, Contagion is about an extremely contagious virus — one that can be transmitted just by driving a friend who is infected, or, in the case of Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, having a wild night at a casino and then cheating on your husband (Matt Damon). It’s also first detected in Asia and has similar early symptoms, like a cough. Characters undertake preventative measures similar to the ones the CDC recommends to combat COVID-19, including “self-distancing.” Writing this from day 11 of self-isolation, I related most to the horny, angsty teenager in the film, who is annoyed with her dad (poor Matt Damon) for not letting her see her boyfriend.
But most importantly, Contagion also accurately depicts the danger of widespread panic, prejudice, and misinformation during a pandemic, specifically via the internet and social media. Jude Law plays a snaggletoothed, newsboy cap-wearing blogger and conspiracy theorist. (One of my favorite lines in the film is Elliott Gould yelling at him: “Blogging is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation!”) He accuses the press and the CDC of being shady and, despite him also being shady, he’s not wrong. Almost no one can be trusted in this film. Most people act out of pure self-interest, whether it’s to make money, save their own asses, or get some ass — looking at you, Gwenny. All in all, Contagion nails how viruses work on a basic level, and how bad and gross humans can be.
No matter how accurate Contagion feels, though, it’s still a work of fiction, and should be treated as such. If the takeaways are “Don’t panic” and “Don’t be a fool,” then watching this film will have the exact opposite effect. It’s designed to provoke. That’s what movies do! It may have a happy ending, and given me a brief sense of comfort knowing that things could be worse, but I still jump when someone coughs or sneezes. I’m more afraid to leave the house than I was before, and will not be hitting up casinos or cheating on my partner anytime soon, that’s for sure.
At the end of the day, why would anyone want to make themselves feel worse right now? That would be sick.