10 years ago this week, the movie that essentially predicted the pandemic was released in cinemas
It is jaw-dropping how many things this movie predicted so precisely.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival on 3 September, 2011 before being released in cinemas on 9 September, Contagion was met with decent box office ($136 million worldwide from a $60 million budget) and very decent reviews (85% on Rotten Tomatoes).
It didn't generate any Oscar attention, despite some good performances from the incredibly stacked cast - Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle - as well as tight, claustrophobic direction by Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven, Magic Mike) and a concise, intelligent script by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, Side Effects).
For years, it seemed like Contagion would be remembered only for being maybe the most realistic disaster movie ever made... until March 2020.
When the first major lockdowns began to arrive around the globe, the viewing figures for Contagion suddenly skyrocketed. It jumped to the No.7 film on the global iTunes Movie Chart, HBO Max reported that it was their number one movie for two weeks straight, and The New York Times discovered that piracy of the movie had increased by 5,609% compared to the month before.
The UK's Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted that watching the movie, specifically the scenes involving the global scramble for vaccines, were what inspired him to order much larger quantities of the Covid-19 vaccine that his advisers recommended.
Suddenly, this wasn't a disaster movie anymore. This was a horrific documentary disguised as a crystal ball.
Back when "Flatten The Curve" was all you ever heard on the news, and the advice was to wash your hands while silently singing 'Happy Birthday', Soderbergh and Burns reunited with the movie's scientific advisor Ian Lipkin, aka the director of the Centre for Infection and Immunity in the States, along with some of the stars of the movie to create a series of PSAs. The idea being that maybe those who found Contagion scarily real might actually listen to those involved in making the movie.
We obviously have no way to tell if they actually helped at all, but it is likely that they had a better reaction than the celebrity-filled 'Imagine' video that arrived two weeks earlier.
As we are now hopefully entering the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the actual pandemic, we can take better stock of how much Contagion so accurately predicted.
The movie's finale shows the source of the virus, which includes an origin in China and a zoonotic spillover (the contamination from animals to humans, which is still believed to the likely origins of Covid-19). Sick people in the movie have a lot in common with the current virus: fevers, profuse sweating, pounding headaches, sore throat, cough. Although the movie did add the Hollywood element of seizures and frothing at the mouth, as well as a much higher mortality rate (30%) compared to reality (reported to be between 1.8% and 3.4%).
Other aspects of the fictional pandemic, from discussions around R-naught number (the number of people a sick person is likely to infect), to unproven remedies (in the movie it was Forsythia, while in reality, Trump himself was touting chloroquine in press conferences), to vaccine passports... they all became a part of our every-day lives.
In an interview with The Washington Post in October 2020, writer Scott Z. Burns said:
"It is sad, and it is frustrating. Sad because so many people are dying and getting sick. Frustrating because people still don’t seem to grasp the situation we are now in and how it could have been avoided by properly funding the science around all of this.
"It is also surreal to me that people from all over the world write to me asking how I knew it would involve a bat or how I knew the term 'social distancing'. I didn’t have a crystal ball - I had access to great expertise. So, if people find the movie to be accurate, it should give them confidence in the public health experts who are out there right now trying to guide us."
And, perhaps most worryingly of all, they're working on a sequel. Speaking to HappySadConfused, director Soderbergh revealed the following:
"I’ve got a project in development that Scott Burns is working with me on, that's a kind of philosophical sequel to Contagion, but in a different context. You’ll kind of look at the two of them as kind of paired, but very different hair colours.
"So, Scott and I had been talking about, 'So, what’s the next iteration of a Contagion-type story?' We have been working on that; we should probably hot-foot it a little bit."
If you're brave enough, Contagion is available to watch on Prime Video right now.