Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


OK, give me all your germs!' Steven Soderbergh jokes after arriving for his press duties. But as his new film Contagion shows, the spread of a deadly pandemic is no laughing matter. Particularly when it starts in Hong Kong. The film may pinball us around the world, from London to Geneva, Tokyo and a series of US cities, but the geographical origin of the film's fictionalised MEV-1 virus will revive horrific memories among those who lived through the nightmare of Sars in 2003. 'A lot of the movie is modelled on Sars,' admits screenwriter Scott Burns. 'So Hong Kong was the easiest place to set it.'

Burns calls the region a 'hot-spot' for cultivating infectious diseases. 'It has a huge harbour and port, where a lot of people come in and out of. And it also has access to the mainland, where there are people who don't always have a lot of refrigeration. So, sometimes, they're going to wet markets and they're buying live animals. It's one of these places where you have a large population in contact with livestock.' To be fair, he comes well armed with facts and figures; he conducted his research with Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett. 'Both were in Hong Kong during Sars,' he says.

While the film may boast an A-list cast, including Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Matt Damon, it's less a thriller than a clinically precise depiction of how such an outbreak might spread and how the authorities would cope. Yet Contagion's attempts to present a global perspective on the crisis falter, with most of the main characters American in nationality, including Laurence Fishburne's Ellis Cheever, the head of the US Centre For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 'That was a necessity for us because the CDC was really the operation centre of how this thing was going to get solved,' shrugs Soderbergh. 'So it made sense to set it primarily in the US.'

Burns is more apologetic. 'If we had more money and more time I think we would've liked to go to more places and see how different countries respond to it. I tried to make it as global as I possibly could. Again, I'm also limited. As much as I want to have a world perspective, you tend to write what you know.'

Yet actress Jennifer Ehle, who plays a lab technician trying to find a vaccine, believes the film's universality comes from showing how different countries react and interact. 'That's one of the scariest things,' she says. 'If a pandemic were to happen, our salvation from it might be in the hands of people who don't necessarily have global interests at heart.'

From the 1918 spread of Spanish flu (the first of two pandemics involving the H1N1 influenza virus; the second being the 2009 outbreak), the threats have thankfully been resolved before global disaster. Yet what if it's not a natural disease? Martin Rees, in his 2003 book Our Final Hour, predicted that by 2020 'bio-terror or bio-error will lead to one million casualties in a single event'. He reasoned that there were untold numbers of people capable of causing a catastrophic biological disaster. 'My concern is not only organised terrorist groups, but individual weirdos with the mindset of the people who now design computer viruses.'

With a reference to the virus being a possible act of bio-terrorism, it might seem like Contagion contains a streak of post 9/11 paranoia - not least through the character of Alan Krumwiede (Law), a conspiracy-prone blogger.

The way Burns sees it, there's nothing more dangerous than this escalation of paranoia. 'If 10 people get sick, then 10,000 people get scared. There's a thing in the world called threat assessment. How good are we at determining what's really dangerous? And the best example I can give is right after 9/11, two people died of anthrax. But we shut down the airlines, we shut down the government, we shut down the subway. Two people died. Now 10,000 to 20,000 people die a year of flu, and people still don't get their flu shots. So what's more dangerous: the flu or anthrax?'

Such disease movies are nothing new, of course. Elia Kazan's 1948 film Panic In The Streets told the story of a doctor and a policeman trying to locate a killer infected with pneumonic plague. Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain, made in 1971, depicts scientists identifying an alien virus. The 1995 thriller Outbreak saw Dustin Hoffman take on a fictional Ebola-like virus. Over the past decade, the genre has mutated from science fiction into a more aggressive strain.

Take Argentinean film Phase 7 - a claustrophobic John Carpenter-influenced thriller, in which a couple hole up in their apartment block as an epidemic sweeps the globe. Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense is a bleak examination of the collapse of civilisation after an epidemic begins to rob people of their sensory perceptions.

Mackenzie believes he knows why there has been a spate of apocalypse stories. 'It seems there's a period of artistic self-flagellation going down,' he argues. 'People are looking into the abyss. No one is believing in religion any more ... few people are believing in science. And community is fragmented and lost. There are big gaping holes in the way that we regard our place in the world. We're also rapaciously consuming the planet. Humanity is a plague. All those kinds of things. So it's hard not to look at the whole human project with some level of disgust, which is a horrible thing.'

Factor in Lars von Trier's latest film Melancholia, which sets itself on the eve of a planetary apocalypse, and the outlook for our world is indeed gloomy. Yet if this suggests the doomsday genre is in rude health, Contagion is more concerned with distancing itself from movie cliches than creating a metaphorical experience for the human condition.

'Scott and I had this list of things that we would not do,' says Soderbergh. 'We would not show the [US] president. And we would not cut to Moscow or Sydney, say, where you're shown a bunch of characters that you don't know that are dying and you're supposed to care.' And this Contagion does - even if it means the end result is like a university lecture.

Contagion is screening now