Contagion, the 2011 film about a deadly worldwide virus outbreak, was hugely popular when it came out, raking in $135 million worldwide. And then, a shocker: As the 2020 coronavirus outbreak proliferated, it suddenly became popular again, briefly breaking into the top 10 on the iTunes movie rentals chart on January 28. As of February 3, it was holding steady at No. 11, right behind The Farewell.
Apparently many people reading the news turned to the movies to make sense of what’s going on, and that might have been smart. Upon its release, Contagion was mostly lauded by the scientific community (though not uniformly) for its unusually accurate depiction of how a deadly, highly transmissible virus could spread around the globe, affecting everyone from scientists and government leaders to ordinary people.
The movie features an all-star ensemble (including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Bryan Cranston, and more) and a winning writer-director duo in Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh, who had collaborated on The Informant! in 2009 and, after Contagion, would re-team for Side Effects (2013) and The Laundromat (2019). (Burns also wrote and directed 2019’s The Report.) Like most of their efforts, it’s a taut thriller for wonks, deeply researched and filled with jargon that coaxes viewers to pay attention; behind the entertainment is information that could have a real impact on your own life.
Contagion portrays a world wracked by not just a virus, but a whole set of ills that come along with it — disorder, societal breakdown, the difficulties inherent in finding a cure, individuals who refuse to follow rules, people who set priorities that protect their loved ones before the general public. And no wonder people want to watch it now. It feels like it could have been released yesterday.
Contagion is both horrifying and a little comforting; the scientists do eventually find and release a vaccine, and even though a lot of people die, most of the world’s population manages to survive. World war doesn’t break out. It’s both a horror film and not the worst-case scenario.
But watching Contagion in 2020, what’s most striking about the film isn’t really the central virus itself — or at least it wasn’t for me, though seeing the rising coronavirus fatality count has been heartbreaking. What’s most striking, and what I hope iTunes renters are taking note of, is a different kind of virus, a parallel outbreak for which Alan Krumwiede (played by Jude Law) is patient zero.
Contagion argues that bad information is at least as contagious as the virus itself
Alan Krumwiede is a kind of character who still felt a little fantastical, as I recall, in 2011. He’s a blogger, a conspiracy theorist, a “freelance journalist” in the mold of Alex Jones, with 12 million devoted fans and a penchant for the spotlight. To his audience, Krumwiede peddles various theories about the virus, such as the idea that it’s been genetically engineered. He goes on national television to accuse CDC director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) and the entire government apparatus of conspiring with Big Pharma to suppress a simple homeopathic cure, called forsythia, in order to profit off a vaccine.
But Krumwiede is a charlatan who stands to profit off forsythia himself. (Jones has made a hefty sum off his own hawking of dietary supplements — like a pill that will cure the “fungal epidemic” sweeping the nation.) In a video posted to his website, Krumwiede fakes the symptoms of the virus and then “heals” himself with forsythia. Later, we see him roaming the streets in full protective gear, even though he’s supposedly immune; it was all a scam.
Yet Krumwiede’s falsehoods contain just enough of the truth that they spread quickly, infecting viewers prone to his cocktail of fear, paranoia, and mistrust of authorities, particularly those who are supposed to be looking out for them. That, as he tells one man, is his “brand.”
When he confronts Cheever on TV, Krumwiede argues that, as with Hurricane Katrina and Wall Street (presumably he means the housing crisis), what’s really going on is being hidden from the everyday man. Cheever, trying to keep his cool, rebuffs him. “In order to become sick,” he says, “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. I think what Mr. Krumwiede is spreading is far more dangerous than the disease.”
“Oh, really,” Krumwiede shoots back. Then he reveals on air that an email written by Cheever has surfaced and is circulating on Facebook. Cheever had sent it to his fiancée, warning her of a quarantine about to be enforced in Chicago, where she lives. The quarantine wasn’t announced to the general public until several hours after the email was sent. See? you can almost hear Krumwiede’s 12 million viewers shouting through the screen. They are withholding the truth from us.
The scary part about Krumwiede’s brand of “virus” is that it infects people’s minds and causes them to act in ways that expressly counteract their own best interests, not to mention the greater good. Once the vaccine has been developed, he threatens to advise his viewers to avoid it, and when he’s arrested and charged with securities fraud, conspiracy, and likely manslaughter, they pool their money and post his bail.
Even “reasonable” people seem prone to his way of thinking in the wake of the virus, whether or not they’ve come into contact with Krumwiede themselves or would ever listen to someone like him in other circumstances. One scientist tells another, offhandedly, that he’s read that the Americans have a cure and are manufacturing it in secret; when she asks him where he’s read that, he says, “The internet.”
“The internet? You believe it?” she says.
“I don’t know,” he replies.
Obviously, people have always been able to sell theories and fake remedies for all kinds of problems to people who are scared for their lives, throughout history. But Contagion reminds us that the structure of the internet allows bad information to spread in a way that uncannily mimics a very contagious virus. (Smallpox, Kate Winslet’s scientist character informs us early on, was often transmitted from one patient to three others; the spread of false, harmful information is much faster and covers more ground thanks to the internet.) And that false information — those unverified rumors and sinister theories — have real-world implications.
I guess that’s easy to see in 2020, with QAnon and Pizzagate and so many other internet-fueled, garden-variety conspiracies wreaking havoc on the real world all the time. But even sensible people find it difficult to resist hoarding masks or shutting out hoaxes about the spread of coronavirus. We’re afraid, and our fear mixed with rumor and hearsay can have dangerous consequences.
Which is why Contagion still rings so true today — and why, maybe, it’s good that people are watching it in times like these. It’s probably not an inoculation against paranoia, but it at least provides a bit of a barrier between us and the virus.