Gwyneth Paltrow has had one weird January. Earlier this month, she released a $75 candle called “This Smells Like My Vagina.” It sold out almost immediately because we all seem to be committed to to Making Everything Worse. Last Friday, all six episodes of her television show, “The Goop Lab,” started streaming on Netflix so that our aunts can all learn about the Wim Hof Method, energy healing sessions, and the color palettes of their own vulvas. And now the 2011 Steven Soderbergh thriller Contagion, which features Paltrow in one of her most recent non- Avengers-related film roles, has become this week’s must-rent flick.
As of this writing, Contagion is the 12th most popular movie rental on iTunes, and the 16th most-rented on Google Play, and yes, this has everything to do with coronavirus.
It’s not a spoiler to share plot details from a film that was released during Barack Obama’s first term as president, but the film opens with Paltrow’s character, Beth Emhoff, returning to Minnesota from a business trip in China. She feels ill when she gets home, but she initially shrugs off her symptoms as jet lag. Instead, she’s dead within two days and having her skull sawed open onscreen. (Weirdly, she never released a “This Smells Like My Encephalitic Brain” tie-in candle.)
Emhoff becomes Patient Zero for the disease, called MEV-1, which she contracted by shaking hands with a chef who had prepared a pig that had been bitten by an infected bat. (“Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” one of the film’s onscreen virologists says somberly.)
By the time the end credits roll, MEV-1 has caused 2.5 million deaths in the United States alone, and 26 million worldwide. As coronavirus continues to spread—with confirmed cases in 26 countries—the comparisons to Contagion have been unavoidable on social media; after all, the movie also has citywide quarantines, airport shutdowns, and harried CDC scientists who are racing to find a cure. It also has a terrified worldwide populace who are convinced that they’re one contaminated doorknob or handshake or bowl of bar peanuts from catching MEV-1 too.
The memes are one thing, but the people who seriously see the film as some kind of pandemic-related prophecy are completely missing the point. “Contagion wasn’t supposed to be a horror story about the perils of global air travel,” Rebecca Onion wrote for Slate. “The movie is as much about the way disease gets amplified by people’s relationships to the truth, as it is about viral transmission.”
Despite the improbability of an impending real-life MEV-1 equivalent, one doctor-turned-writer said that Contagion actually did get a lot of things right, mostly in its explanations of how infectious diseases spread, and its willingness to illustrate how difficult it can be to create a viable vaccine in the middle of a pandemic.
“The scene shifts back to the CDC, where Contagion again distinguishes itself as the only blockbuster movie to describe the science of viruses and viral vaccines carefully and accurately,” Dr. Paul Offit wrote in his 2018 book Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information. (He credited the film’s scientific advisor, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology, with putting the writers on the right track.)
Although the World Health Organization has declared coronavirus “a public health emergency of international concern,” it’s still not Contagion‘s fictional MEV-1. It’s not even regular old influenza which, according to the CDC, has already made an estimated 19 million Americans sick, put 180,000 in the hospital, and contributed to 10,000 deaths. If you’re still concerned though, commit yourself to common sense hygiene practices, avoid travel to at-risk locations, and maybe find something else to rent on iTunes.