A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Contagion" - A win for science in movies...

 Just a quick review of "Contagion" and movie science in general; still in Australia but will write a few more in depth pieces when I'm back home next month. In the interim, enjoy and avoid 2012...

Given that I'm sufficiently nerdy to write a science and medicine blog, it may be considered surprising that I tend to despair at movies which play the science card, mainly because of what I call the Deepak effect - taking concepts in science and applying them haphazardly / willfully misconstrued / utterly nonsensical to areas which they do not describe, nor often even apply to. I name this ignominiously after that bastion of new-age quackery Mr Chopra himself, who makes a fortune linking quantum mechanic concepts to human happiness despite the fact the principles simply don't apply*. My personal favourite example of this is an absolute howler from 2012 when the'scientists' work out why the weather is changing so quickly..

"The neutrinos have mutated!"

This is perhaps the most ridiculous line in the history of cinema. I admit I let out a rather loud "Seriously, what the fuck?!" when I saw this, attracting curious stares in the cinema and reducing my date to tears laughing. Joke was on her however, as I spent the next 45 minutes babbling about fundamental particles. Women love fundamental particles. Here's Physicist / Comedian Dara O'Brien explain why my derision was so heartfelt...

Related to this is "sea of buzzwords" syndrome - throw together a series of technical jargon with no real explanation as to why you're doing it, nor indeed any real understanding of what those terms mean. While a script writer might think these terms sound cool, any individual familiar with the terminology instantly sees how bloody stupid the dialogue actually is. I'll concede this can be kind of charming; you know in Star Wars when Han Solo brags that he did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs ? Well, the parsec is actually a unit of distance, not time - this is kind of like boasting you've done a 4 kilometer walk in less than 5 kilometers. True perhaps, but not impressive - what WOULD be impressive is doing a 5 kilometer walk in less than 4 kilometers, in which case that rascally Corellian would be justified in his egotism.

I did the Star Wars trilogy in LESS than four movies and they were THIS long!

Sometimes movies invoking science are just plain stupid with no saving graces. Let's just not mention a certain movie starring Bruce Willis, a giant rock and a horrible song by Aerosmith....

So it is with a sense of surprise that I can't recommend 'Contagion' highly enough - I saw it with my good friend Kerri last week in Australia just before it was released in Europe. Had I know it was a 'science' flick I might have had second thoughts before going in but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. 'Contagion' not only boasts an incredible cast but also a genuinely engaging plot with clever direction.

Laurence Fishburne plays a doctor. Surprisingly, he doesn't offer anyone any blue OR red pills...

More relevant to this blog, the science of epidemiology is actually well respected and better still, well explained. Terminology like the rate of reproduction of a virus (the R0 rate) are well explained, and the transmission routes and strain origins are very faithful to the reality of epidemics.

Another refreshing aspect was that the unrealistic cliche of the lone scientific genius working in isolation is utterly absent from this movie. Instead, it depicts a much more realistic interplay of researchers and health groups like the WHO, CDC and numerous academics working in parallel to try and get to the bottom of the issue. Real science is collaborative, and it is a massive compliment that 'Contagion' not only shows this reality but that it adds to the drama rather than detracts from it.

In fact, the science in Contagion is so well done that even New Scientist have given it the nod of approval.

What was also refreshing was that the film also took an amusing swipe at the typical alternative medicine tripe. I don't want to spoil anything, but it beautifully showcased the charlatan angle and for once presented the doctors and scientists here as the good guys, which makes a change from the normal.

I walked out of the cinema deeply impressed and my fellow nerd Kerri concurred; not only did I really enjoy the movie as a work of art, I came out fascinated by technical aspects like transmission and mortality rates. In short, inspired on several levels. The makers of this film have managed to prove something I've long suspected - chiefly that the reality of science and medicine is so much more dramatic, engaging and exciting than any flimsy image we can concoct. Often reality is much more magical and mind-boggling than the fiction and I cautiously hope that rather than scriptwriters sacrificing science and realism for drama, they realise that the the science can actually add to that very sense of drama and wonder.

*One of these days I'll write a blog specially about Chopra and quantum mechanics.. just you wait..


  1. Pfft, get your lore right, Grimes. The Kessel run is an 18 Parsec smuggling route that takes you through a huge cluster of black holes. The point of Solo's boast is that he's so awesome and his ship's navigation system is so good he can skirt closer to the black holes than anyone else will dare, and so manages to shave over 6 parsecs off the route, thus doing an 18 parsec run in under 12 parsecs.

    (P.S. Glad to hear Contagion's worth seeing, I'll have to get out to the cinema soon)

    Of course, that's slightly undermined by the fact that he's trying to prove it's a "fast ship", not "I'm a badass who ain't afraid of no event horizon", so a cynical bastard might try and suggest that that's just the authors of the expanded universe retrospectively covering Lucas's ass...

  2. Cock, obviously the hastily-added P.S. is meant to be at the end...

  3. Dara O'Briain pure genius. I wish I had him as my physics teacher when I was in school. "Why didn't you just email me?" I nearly pissed my self laughing. Now that the movie has the DRG Seal of Approval I'll go and see it.

  4. The science of contagion is lacking, they didnt even manage to do basic maths. The containment of the infected man on the bus was negligent. I entirely disagree with the premise that the film was well executed. Science in films is positive, but it should atleast be followed through on a superficial level, rather than leaving obvious factual errors while claiming to be accurate. How can you reconcile the opinions in this review with the most basic factual errors and poor judgement shown in the script?

  5. How do I reconcile it ? Well... I figured the entire blog post above would have been enough but I should point out that New Scientist were of the same opinion...


    In any case, I have not said it's perfect. There are 3 points I can think of that are lacking, for example the speed at which the structure is obtained. This is shown to be done quickly, but in reality could take many years. But I can forgive a lot because a film MUST have dramatic freedom to keep the audience's attention.

    Simply put, there were no absolute howlers but some things that weren't perfect and I haven't claimed otherwise.


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