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A cranky person watches Contagion - Input Junkie
September 12th, 2011
11:36 am


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A cranky person watches Contagion
I liked the trailer for Contagion, and then I heard an interview with Laurie Garrett, the science adviser for the movie-- she was very enthusiastic about how reasonable the science was. (Page down to Contagion for the movie stuff.)

So I saw the movie last night. Perhaps it wasn't the perfect thing to take my mind off 9/11 (any suggestions?), but I did get moderately caught up in it and distracted by what I didn't like about it, so it wasn't a total waste.

I'd say that the acting, dialogue, and music were all reasonably good. The science all seemed to make sense.

It wasn't visually interesting enough for me to say that it's worth seeing in a theater.

On the specific level, since Garrett insisted on no evil scientists, we get an evil blogger. He comes up with a fraudulent cure, gets lots of money as a result, and is about to encourage people to not get their vaccinations. He has accurate information about a security breach by a high-status good guy, but I think the implication is that revealing this isn't worth it-- at best, it's neutral.

There is no hint that there are any other bloggers.

I'd say the movie has an underlying theme of showing that all the initiative should be with major institutions. When people outside the institutions do something on their own, it's looting, rioting, kidnapping, and spreading false information. The only bit of low-level initiative which works out well is a janitor who begs for vaccination for his son from his boss, and gets it.

Also, there's less than I would have liked to see about the actual amounts of social breakdown, and what the efforts to rebuild and maintain in the face of a plague would have looked like. Perhaps I wanted a novel.

Minor annoying detail: The evil blogger is pushing homeopathic forsythia as a cure. When he and a top science administrator are arguing with each other for the media, the top science administrator doesn't ask "How did you settle on homeopathic forsythia?"

Possible symbolic weirdness, and I do mean possible.... the woman who brings the disease to the US from Hong Kong. She picks it up in a casino, and spreads it faster because she has an adulterous interlude in Chicago on the way home. Is there a subtext that light-hearted irresponsible behavior brings death?

Anyway, possibly the worst date movie in the history of movies.

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(6 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
That sounds like Feed, which has evil institutions and good bloggers, turned upside down.

I'm skipping it even though it sounds like a reasonably intelligent movie. It would just home straight in on my phobias.
[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
Is there a subtext that light-hearted irresponsible behavior brings death?

When isn't there? Look, if the world ends next year, it won't be because of the Mayan calendar going Y2K on us, it'll be the fault of some teenagers groping each other in a car.
[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2011 05:51 pm (UTC)
Yep, a very common trope; in horror and disaster movies, sex = death. I suppose it gives a frisson of superiority to the Decent Upstanding Citizens watching or something.

-- Steve's been debating whether to watch this flick or not, given that his day job involves dealing with people's health care questions.

PS: the film reviewer in our Local Fishwrap figured he could make a killing selling bottles of hand sanitiser in the theatre lobby while Contagion is running.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 02:43 am (UTC)
I saw the film in a mood to be all relativistic and look at anything from that person's point of view, so I viewed the movie against the grain-- Actually, very many people do immoral or illegal things for good reasons, and the blogger could be included in that. One major issue is whether he was never sick at all (in which case he is just a maggot) or whether he had a cold and did think the forsythia cured him of MEV. I saw the film again, with womzilla and looked very carefully--he doesn't look well, but then he never is the picture of health! His nose isn't quite as red, but I'm not sure that's definitive. It would be interesting to talk to the screenwriter.

One scientist keeps working with samples that are so dangerous they really should be destroyed; the other one is walking around with an arm-band saying he had the vaccination when he didn't (!) as well as spreading the word; there's the kidnapping--but those all turn out OK. Only chance, I think, determines whether there's a bad result or not.

The male protagonist's personal initiative to keep his daughter safe works! (Although I think it's a continuity error when he takes her to the funeral home.) That's a very powerful part of the movie.

The implications of it coming from Hong Kong are complex, but it is factually based. The populations density, live-kill markets, and specific blends of animal species are a cauldron of new diseases. Just as if there is a film about an antibiotic-resistant zoonotic disease, the disease should come from the USA.

And I think, with the Day 1 montage, the woman's own company is implicated for downing the tree and scaring the fruit bats.

I feel the adultery is similarly complicated. She just had bad luck, she was sick before she met with him, and she would have spread it anyway, as did the waiter who picked up her glass. I think it also was done to deepen the character of her husband, as close as the film comes to a protagonist.

Personally, I didn't mind not getting more social and infrastructure decay, because many movies do that thoroughly, and I like the blend of the larger and smaller stories.

I did think, though, that if 75% survive, we should have seem more of them going back to their jobs or otherwise being put to work. Womzilla pointed out that we don't know how long it takes them to recover, but then I'd think they should have dealt with that. I'm pretty sure I've even read about disaster plans making use of the recovered. I think it was more to make the lonely, empty landscapes for cinematic purposes than actual science.

And yes, worst date movie! When we got home, W. and I were talking about the film to Sueprgee. He coughed, and we both automatically stepped back a few feet!
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 09:27 am (UTC)
I missed whoever was going around with a fake vaccination bracelet.

I thought the kidnappers were given fake vaccine. No?

I may need to pull back somewhat on the initiative issue, though I still think that the public is portrayed as either compliant or a mob.

One thing that wasn't handled but which came up (at least hypothetically) with the bird flu was to what extent people needed hospital support to survive. You can't ramp up ventilator production really quickly, and it might take even longer to get skilled people to administer them. (I'm not sure how long a ventilator + first aid course would take.)

Edited at 2011-09-13 09:27 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC)
When the scientist gives the vaccination to the janitor's son, the scientist has to wear the vaccination bracelet or he'll be found out. As a result, he's going around being treated as though he's vaccinated when he isn't.

And if the WHO officer didn't tell them (which she clearly is going to), the same thing would be true of those in the kidnapper's village. People wrongly identified as vaccinated are not just in danger themselves.

I think it's more fair to say that mobs are viewed as either compliant or dangerous, and individuals doing things for their own motives may have bad effects or may have good ones. Very rarely both--more often would be even more realistic.

They didn't deal with hospital care at all after that one scene, and they didn't clarify whether the 75% survival was with or without supportive care. But this wasn't respiratory, although that was how it was transmitted, and maybe there isn't that much supportive care for a virus attacking the brain.

Also, the film did a good job during the news conferences, I thought, making clear that anti-virals and even the forsythia were being tested, but nothing was effective. That is also shown in the despair the CDC officer shows as she gobbles down the pills she has: they won't work.

Still, the idea that so many people recover, and hence are immune, seemed to me completely left out of the film. I'd at least liked to have seen one CDC person recovering but too weak to go back to work, or something.
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