‘Contagion’ Suddenly Became One of the Most-Watched Films of 2020 — Here’s Why

No disease, outbreak, or epidemic is quite as contagious as fear itself. Director Steven Soderbergh explores the destructive power of fear in the event of a pandemic in the 2011 drama-thriller, Contagion. The film follows the onset and outbreak of an extremely dangerous worldwide epidemic as various political leaders and scientists fight for a cure while average families fight to stay alive amongst a collapsing society.  

Despite being nearly a decade old, Contagion is currently topping charts across several different streaming services, even surpassing more recent cinematic releases, like the mystery film, Knives Out and the award-winning social horror film, Parasite. So, what is making Contagion so contagious? 

*This article will contain spoilers for Contagion. 

Contagion| Photo by Felix Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

‘Contagion’ is currently the second most-watched Warner Bros. film

According to  Warner Bros., only a few months ago, Contagion was dwindling as No. 270 on their catalog of most-watched films that are not new releases. Since the beginning of the new year, the film has made a huge leap to the No. 2 spot, topped only by the Harry Potter film series. Contagion continues to climb the ranks of other lists of trending films on many streaming services. The film is currently sitting at No.7 on iTunes’ top 10 movie rentals and has now spread into Google Play’s top 20. After several years of lying dormant as a titan of primal psychological horror, Contagion’s popularity is spreading like the fictional MEV-1 virus in the film. In other words, Contagion has gone utterly viral.

The film opens with a very familiar sound: a hacking cough. A young woman named Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who appears to be quite ill but dismisses her symptoms as jet lag, is returning home from a business trip abroad. Only two days later, she experiences a series of seizures and dies from what seems like an influenza-like infection. Beth was patient zero of an illness unlike anything the Center of Disease Control has seen before, and both the pandemic and mass hysteria are only growing. The film follows Beth’s surviving family, doctors, scientists, and political leaders as they all fight to stay immune and find a cure before the pandemic can claim any more lives, or incite any more chaos. 

Among the many films from the “deadly global pandemic” genre, Contagion is considered by many to be one of the most accurate, with the exception of the MEV-1 disease itself, which is based on a combination of influenza and Nipah, a virus that causes respiratory issues and brain inflammation. “Influenza and Nipah have incompatible genomes that are not capable of recombination in nature,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained to PBS. So, a disease as devastating and deadly as the illness depicted in Contagion isn’t quite possible or plausible in reality. 

Why is ‘Contagion’ so popular right now?

The film’s sudden spike in popularity seems to be correlated with the current outbreak of COVID-19, more commonly known as coronavirus. The first cases of coronavirus were reported in China as we approached the end of 2019. Currently, there are over 100,000 reported cases of coronavirus globally.

With the anxieties of a potential pandemic rising along with the amount of people taking part in “social distancing”, it seems like Contagion serves as a means of catharsis and maybe even the right message of caution to encourage people to take steps to decrease the spread of disease. “It was very deliberately designed to be a cautionary film,” producer Michael Shamberg told BuzzFeed News, explaining that the filmmakers had consulted several experts to make the movie as accurate and realistic as possible. 

Fans of the film have even started to pick up on eerily interesting parallels between the events of the film and the onset and spread of coronavirus, such as the origin of both diseases. In the film, a pig eats a banana that was contaminated by a bat infected by MEV-1. The pig is slaughtered and cooked (by a chef who neither washed his hands nor wore gloves) and eaten later by Paltrow’s character, Beth during her business trip in Hong Kong. 

Meanwhile, scientists are still trying to uncover the exact source of coronavirus, but the result seems to be unanimous that the disease was transmitted from animal to human somehow. Like Contagion, the disease began to spread outside of its country of origin due to business travelers and tourists, which is thought to be the way coronavirus first entered the United States to begin with. 

With these parallels in mind, some fans of the film even suggest that Contagion “predicted” COVID-19 as a result. “The similarities between our contagion and the coronavirus are immaterial, accidental, and really not that important,” writer Scott Z. Burns told Fortune magazine. “What is more important and accurate is the societal response and the spread of fear and the knock-on effects of that. That is proving to be accurate.”

Director Steven Soderbergh
Director Steven Soderbergh | Photo by Dominique Charriau/WireImage

Could a film like ‘Contagion’ do more harm than good? 

In a particularly powerful moment of the film, a conspiracy theory blogger named Alan Krumwiede, played by Jude Law, goes toe-to-toe with CDC official, Dr. Ellis Cheever, played by Laurence Fishburne, on television. Cheever rebukes Krumwiede for spreading fear and false information through his blog. Cheever remarks, “In order to become sick, you have to first come into contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumor, or the television, or the internet.” 

While the film has a generally bleak tone, Director Steven Soderbergh hopes that viewers will find an overall positive message in Contagion

“Is it giving them comfort? Well, it shows that ultimately there will be a solution and humanity will recover,” Soderbergh explained in an interview, “If it’s scary, it’s only meant to scare people into taking precautions and it’s only meant to scare the infrastructure into doing the right thing. We’re not trying to scare people that they’re all going to die. We’re trying to scare people that you can do something.”

While Contagion is definitely meant to scare people, it is not meant to generate massive episodes of public hysteria. In fact, it aims to do the exact opposite., it ends on a hopeful note that humanity will continue to recover from whatever diseases and ailments are thrown our way, provided that we continue to take care of our bodies and refuse to give in to rumor-driven paranoia and hysteria during disastrous situations.

After all, there is no disease that spreads quite like fear. 

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