“Contagion”: Earnest scientists, a flaky blogger, and societal breakdown

[SPOILER ALERT: This blog post contains plot references to the movie “Contagion.” If you plan on seeing the movie, you might want to skip this post until after you do.]

The star-studded movie “Contagion” is very Hollywood, but it’s also a powerful statement about our times…or at least the times we plausibly could face. In addition, it attests to the ability of mainstream entertainment media to shape our perceptions of what counts as legitimate science and medical care.

Plot (briefly)

The title is a giveaway, and you may have seen the trailers, so I needn’t go into detail. “Contagion” is a Bad Bug (as in disease) movie, with a deadly, fast-acting, flu-like virus quickly spreading around the world. As panic ensues and civil society disintegrates, heroic scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) race to develop a vaccine.

It’s a well-acted, suspenseful movie with A-list performers. Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishbourne, Elliot Gould, and Jude Law are among the cast.

Traditional vs. alternative

A major subplot involves the affirmation of traditional medicine and vaccines and the not-so-subtle smackdown of alternative & complementary medicine.

The researchers and physicians associated with the CDC are portrayed as earnest, masterful, and self-sacrificing in a never-ending war against mutating microbes.

The pesky, lone science blogger who favors a homeopathic remedy (a derivation of the forsythia plant) and criticizes Big Pharma to millions of readers is portrayed variously as a crusading gadfly, flake, or possible fraud.

I hold no strong brief in the traditional vs. alternative & complementary medicine debate. My own belief, admittedly that of a layperson, is that the future of effective health care will involve elements of both. In any event, in director Steven Soderbergh’s apocalyptic world, there’s no room for kooky non-traditional stuff when a deadly virus is at hand. He even takes a gratuitous swipe at blogging, with one of his heroic Establishment characters calling it “graffiti with punctuation marks.”

A most plausible scenario?

In “Contagion,” the breakdown of civil society is swift and hard. People fight over food. They loot drug stores to obtain forsythia. In the U.S., a police state emerges. Access to a new vaccine is done by lottery.

Alas, this struck me as being one of the most realistic story lines in the entire movie.

We have forged an I’ve-got-mine, individualistic culture in contemporary America, and we are witnessing a frightening strain of meanness and selfishness in our politics and civic culture today. All the pieces are in place for a struggle of Darwinesque, survival-of-the-fittest proportions when times get especially rough.

That’s the other contagion in “Contagion,” and it’s already here, in real life.

-David Yamada

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