As anyone who has been stuffed into those overcrowded sausage-like casings called airplanes can relate, someone coughing on a plane can be more than a bit disturbing, particularly to those heading off on vacation. But what if the infection being circulated was more than just the sniffles or light case of the flu? This is the idea behind the absorbing medical thriller Contagion.
The travel required for the filming of director Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! sparked the idea for this pandemic-themed film, also directed by Soderbergh. During a flight, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns noted the vulnerability of airplane travelers and wondered what would happen if a deadly virus began circulating in that close contact. It was, of course, the kind of theme Soderbergh was made to explore.
As he did with illegal drugs in Traffic, Soderbergh looks at a virulent virus from a variety of perspectives — here with a medical researcher (Jennifer Ehle), a grieving parent (Matt Damon), officials at the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) (Laurence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard), a hyperactive blogger (Jude Law) — as they face a microscopic foe that seems to have no cure. As the disease travels, so do the effects. Stores run out of food, schools close, border crossings shut, and people live in fear.
Before he began to write the script, Burns met with experts in the field of contagious diseases and committed himself to months of research to ensure that his depiction of a pandemic would be accurate. Among the experts Burns consulted was Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University. Lipkin also served as a consultant on the set, ensuring that the lab scenes were accurate.
Dr. Lipkin says that the virus created for the film is biologically possible. “Over the past 10 to 20 years, the frequency with which we are seeing reports of emerging infectious diseases has increased dramatically,” he says, noting that the movement of people and goods adds to the spread of disease.
As for Soderbergh, working on Contagion made him both more wary and more secure. He learned of the emerging pathogens but also acquired respect for those who combat disease. “To be in a crisis room and see the degree to which they are tracking every tiny, potentially suspicious thing in remote villages around the world … it’s incredible,” the director says. “I hope the next time people hear something from the CDC or WHO, they realize that there are literally thousands of dedicated, passionate people behind those soundbites, working tirelessly to keep us safe.”
As for the film, Soderbergh quips, “This film could do for elevator buttons and doorknobs what Jaws did for going to the beach.”
“Contagion” is available starting Jan. 3 on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
© 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.