'Contagion,' Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller, is climbing up the charts

Nicole Sperling, The New York Times

Posted at Mar 05 2020 08:16 AM

'Contagion,' Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller, is climbing up the charts 1

One of the hottest movies in the Warner Bros. library is a nine-year-old drama that kills off Gwyneth Paltrow in its first 15 minutes.

Fears of the coronavirus have prompted movie fans to re-examine Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded 2011 thriller, “Contagion,” a fictional account of a pandemic that kills 26 million people worldwide.

According to Warner, the film was listed as No. 270 among its catalog titles at the end of December. Since the start of 2020, it has jumped to second, bested only by Harry Potter movies. “Contagion” is also trending on Amazon Prime Video and has flirted with the iTunes top 10.

Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of “Moonlight,” the best picture winner at the 2017 Oscars, was one of the people who found himself interested in the film in recent days.

He said he had watched “Contagion” with his girlfriend, Lulu Wang, the writer and director of the acclaimed 2020 indie hit “The Farewell,” while on location in Atlanta — the city, he was quick to point out, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its headquarters.

The two film aficionados bought a download of “Contagion” from Comcast’s Xfinity on-demand service.

“I paid $12.99 to watch a 10-year-old movie,” Jenkins said. “I’ve never done that before.”

But what drove him to watch a film he had already seen, one that depicts a terrifying situation similar to what is playing out in real time?

“I was really curious to see how well it would line up to what is happening right now,” Jenkins said. “It was shocking. It felt like I was watching a documentary that has all these movie stars playing real people.”

He added, “It scared me.”

The virus in the Soderbergh film, called MEV-1, started in Asia and is easily transmitted through touch. (Anyone who watches it will never look at a doorknob the same way again.) The first symptom is a hacking cough. (Spoilers ahead: MEV-1 takes out Paltrow, patient zero in the film; her young son; and a doctor played by Kate Winslet. Matt Damon, who plays Paltrow’s husband, proves immune.)

The concept of “social distancing” — which has recently been in the news — comes up often in the film. In a Feb. 25 news conference, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, recommended that cities and towns familiarize themselves with “social distancing measures,” like dividing school classes into smaller groups or advising businesses to allow their employees to work from home.

“Contagion” also shows diligent scientists who ultimately save the day — a comfort for anyone looking for optimism — while highlighting the work of conspiracy theorists profiting off the spread of disinformation. A blogger played by Jude Law is particularly sinister.

In an article for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson recommended watching the film for its skillful depiction of the spread of disinformation. “It feels like it could have been released yesterday,” she wrote.

Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the “Contagion” script, agreed.

“These viruses are tracer bullets through our society,” he said. “They illuminate a lot of the problems that we have. One of the things I didn’t anticipate was that we would have an issue with how truthful and on top of things our administration would be. I remember being most concerned that the spread of misinformation could be as prolific and dangerous as the virus.”

Burns said he had received a wide swath of responses on social media lately. Some praise him for the film’s accuracy. Others accuse him of being a member of the Illuminati. One person asked Burns if he thought it would be safe for him to travel to Hong Kong.

“I’m alarmed when people choose to ask a screenwriter for advice, rather than a doctor,” he said.

Soderbergh sent Burns a text on Monday linking to a story about increased sales of elderberry, a holistic remedy that bears a striking similarity to the forsythia cure promoted in the film by Law’s character.

Soderbergh turned down a request to be interviewed for this article.

“I will decline under the guise of social distancing,” he said.

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