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Why People Can't Stop Watching Contagion

In 2020, life seems to be imitating art in an unsettling way. 

As this new decade begins, countries across the world are grappling with the advent of COVID-19, a form of a pervasive disease called "coronavirus" that's highly contagious and is spreading like infectious wildfire. According to the Center for Disease Control, this flu-like illness is referred to as a "novel coronavirus" because it's currently in its early stages and hasn't yet been identified in previous outbreaks. Though COVID-19 shares a classification and some symptom similarities with the seasonal flu or the common cold, doctors and health professionals are warning travelers and people with immunocompromised systems that COVID-19 could be a much more serious threat. As far as its effect on everyday life, movies releases are getting postponed (No Time to Die was delayed eight months), large gatherings — including film festivals like South by Southwest — are getting canceled, and people are taking extreme precautions to try to prevent the rapid spread of this disease.

With countries including Italy, South Korea, China, and Iran on serious lockdown and places like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and more reporting widespread cases of COVID-19, people across the globe are looking for any concrete information they can find. In certain cases, they're turning to some pretty offbeat sources.

Specifically, Steven Soderbergh's 2011 thriller Contagion has suddenly become one of the most popular films on the rental and streaming market, nearly 10 years after it first hit theaters. In the midst of a possible real-life pandemic, here's why people are watching Contagion now more than ever.

Spoilers for Contagion to follow!

What exactly happens in Contagion?

If, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, you decide it's time to revisit or check out Contagion, you may notice some distressing similarities. The film — which boasts a star-studded cast including Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow — tells a variety of stories from people across the world, linking them all together for a larger narrative.

When the film opens, Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) arrives back home from Hong Kong, where she was visiting on business, after having a brief rendezvous with a former lover during her layover in Chicago. She presents no apparent health problems, then suddenly experiences seizures and ultimately dies just two days later. To make matters worse, Beth's teenage son passes away shortly after from the same illness. Grief-stricken and terrified, Beth's husband Mitch (Damon) gets tested, only to discover he's immune. Meanwhile, scientists and health officials, including Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet), embark on a journey to investigate the disease — with some falling prey to the apparently fatal illness as well.

Communities soon grow desperate for a vaccine, and citizens start looting cities and kidnapping health officials, creating an environment of total chaos. As scientists begin to discover that the disease can be traced back to bats and pigs, people are dying en masse and vaccines are being distributed via a lottery based on birthdate. 

All in all, Contagion is a sobering portrait of what could happen during a deadly pandemic — from mass lawlessness to sweeping deaths.

Why people are turning to Contagion

As COVID-19 continues to spread, Contagion has found its way back onto the top streaming and rental charts across the world, becoming one of Warner Bros.' most popular titles and landing a spot in the top rentals and purchase lists on platforms like iTunes and Amazon Prime Video. It might seem counterintuitive to scare yourself with such a dire fictional disease outbreak, but clearly, some are curious about how much art might (or might not) reflect life.

Barry Jenkins, Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, told The New York Times that he and his girlfriend, The Farewell director Lulu Wang, recently purchased Contagion just to rewatch it. In a quote to the outlet, Jenkins noted, "I paid $12.99 to watch a 10-year-old movie. I've never done that before." But his reasoning makes sense, especially since he's a filmmaker: "I was really curious to see how well it would line up to what is happening right now. It was shocking. It felt like I was watching a documentary that has all these movie stars playing real people [...] It scared me."

Some viewers want the best of both worlds, however, and are simply refusing to pay for the film. The Verge reports that Contagion is becoming one of the most torrented films of the year, nearing 20,000 torrent downloads throughout countries like South Korea and the United States.

Contagion's enduring relevance

Critics have argued that Contagion is a must-watch during this coronavirus outbreak. Vox journalist Alissa Wilkinson is one such critic, writing in a recent piece, "Contagion is both horrifying and a little comforting; the scientists do eventually find and release a vaccine, and even though a lot of people die, most of the world's population manages to survive." However, her ultimate point is that Contagion warns against something even more insidious than disease: the concept of "fake news," which is disseminated throughout the film by conspiracy theorist and money-grubber Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Misreporting is a common phenomenon in 2020, so it's extra prescient that another part of Contagion has remained so relevant.

In terms of whether or not Contagion can be used as some sort of blueprint to better understand COVID-19, opinions differ slightly. While BuzzFeed spoke to one of the film's consulting veterinary specialists, who said that viewers should have taken Contagion more seriously when it was released, NPR fact-checked the flick and found some important distinctions. Not only is the speed of transmission much slower for COVID-19 than it is for the illness in Contagion, but also in the film, 20 percent of the affected patients are at risk of death while COVID-19 presents a much less alarming 2 percent rate. 

In the meantime, no matter if you're streaming Contagion or skipping the second layer of scares, remember to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, quarantine yourself if you feel sick, and be careful in this COVID-19 outbreak.