Contagion Is Extremely Smart About Outbreaks, but Humans Are Extremely Dumb

That’s why you only remember Gwyneth’s head getting sawed open and are freaking out.

Gwyneth Paltrow (as Beth Emhoff) is examined by a doctor on a bed with an ophthalmoscope
Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion (2011). Warner Bros.

Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie about a deadly pandemic, hit the top 10 on the iTunes movie rental chart this week. But in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, jokes and references to Contagion have probably been in your Twitter timeline for longer. Jan. 23: “Texas a&m students be like ‘my life is a movie’ yeah bro Contagion.” Jan 25: “I sound conspiracy theory AF but don’t trust major media outlets they aren’t giving us all the info, look at all underground media sources and what actual ppl in Wuhan are saying because this legit could be like the fucking movie Contagion.” Jan. 30: “The movie Contagion is now a documentary.”

With the World Health Organization’s announcement on Thursday afternoon that the coronavirus 2019-nCoV qualifies as a global health emergency, Contagion references aren’t going anywhere. And with them comes a very 2020 irony: A movie that warned against the corrosive effects of fear and misinformation during a pandemic is now being used to spread … fear and misinformation. An epidemiologist and consultant for Soderbergh said when the film came out that the team behind it was “not trying to scare people.” That may be the case, but the only thing most people seem to remember about Contagion now is the terrifying opening sequence, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow as the Minnesota businesswoman Beth Emhoff, who’s the index case for the outbreak.

In the film, Emhoff comes back from a trip to Hong Kong harboring a bad cough and flu-like symptoms, caused (we later find out) by the novel virus MEV-1. Emhoff quickly collapses in a seizure in her gorgeous kitchen, leaving her husband (Matt Damon) in shock. Watching the movie again recently, I was surprised to be reminded of how little time Paltrow spends on screen—she’s dead before you know it. But because Paltrow has since built an image that depends on the projection of a kind of ultra-clean glamour, Beth Emhoff’s gruesome death made a big impact. The gif that’s most often attached to Contagion tweets features Paltrow writhing grayly on a hospital bed. (I suppose we should feel lucky that people are using that one, and not another one they might pick!)

Even if people mostly remember the movie for Paltrow’s death, and for the ominous way the camera lingers on elementary-school door-handles and hotel-bar peanut bowls after infected people touch them, Contagion wasn’t supposed to be a horror story about the perils of global air travel. The movie is as much about the way disease gets amplified by people’s relationships to the truth, as it is about viral transmission.

The movie’s slimy blogger character, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), spreads misinformation in service of selling a homeopathic “cure” called Forsythia. He goes onto his website “Truth Serum Now,” pretending to have the sickness, and gives himself a dose of “Forsythia,” telling his viewers to do the 2011 equivalent of hitting “like” and “subscribe”: “If I’m here tomorrow, you’ll know it works.”

The Krumwiede subplot of Contagion is about one man’s manipulation of a climate of fear in order to make money. But it’s also about the way that the social conditions of the pandemic create an opening for the blogger to rise. Chaos is a ladder for this man, who goes from pathetically begging an editor to assign him a story before the pandemic hits, to appearing in a talking-head spot on a major news show at the height of the sickness. Krumwiede appears opposite the head of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne) in the role of skeptical gadfly, accusing the CDC and the WHO of concealing the “truth of the virus” from people “to benefit friends of the current administration.” And it isn’t just Krumwiede whose human failures abet the virus’ spread. Fishburne’s CDC chief gives privileged information to his fiancée, trying to save her from infection—a very human slip that gives Krumwiede his opening.

Watching Contagion in 2020, the damage Law’s character does, and the movie’s outrage at his actions, seems almost quaint. Compared to a single blogger selling a “cure,” the misinformation we’re facing today is far worse. BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko is keeping a running list of coronavirus hoaxes and misinformation, from the tweet claiming that the coronavirus was patented in 2018, to the false claims circulated on Facebook that taking vitamin C will cure or prevent coronavirus, to the photo—supposedly of a new coronavirus hospital in Wuhan—that’s actually of an apartment building. (That one was apparently spread by Chinese state media.) Our coronavirus is, so far, not nearly as bad as the fictional MEV-1. But our information environment is way more toxic.

Indulging the occasional “we’re in Contagion now, baby!gallows joke is nowhere near as bad, obviously, as passing on misinformation—even if it’s personally exhausting to me to see an empty reference get worked over so mercilessly. But, nine years and countless gifs later, it’s become ever clearer that the parts of this movie that probably mattered most have taught us nothing.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of coronavirus 2019-nCoV.

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