Pandemic film Contagion becomes one of iTunes' most-watched movies

As fear of the coronavirus spreads across the world, Steven Soderbergh's medical thriller hits the top 10 rentals.

Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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  • Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Jennifer Bisset
2 min read

Jennifer Ehle as a research scientist in the movie's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Steven Soderbergh's gripping medical thriller Contagion is nearly a decade old. But in the wake of growing concerns surrounding the coronavirus, the film, a fictional story of how humans might respond to a deadly airborne virus, has hit iTunes ' top 10 list of rentals in the US. It's also reportedly Warner Bros. second most-watched movie for 2020.

The coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, has claimed more than 3,000 lives and continues to spread across the globe. The World Health Organization declared a public health emergency at the end of January, later assessing the risk of the coronavirus to be "very high."  

It seems that in order to see how this situation could play out we've turned to movies. The stark difference is Contagion depicts a much deadlier, more Hollywood virus than COVID-19.

"We're not trying to scare people that they're all going to die," producer Michael Shamberg tells Buzzfeed, following the film's resurgence on streaming. "We're trying to scare people that you can do something.

"It was very deliberately designed to be a cautionary film. We got the science right."

If you haven't seen Contagion, brace for spoilers. The movie sees Gwyneth Paltrow's Beth return from a business trip in Hong Kong to Minneapolis, where she collapses with seizures and later dies. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officer identifies Beth as patient zero for a disease labeled MEV-1. Mass hysteria sends cities spiraling into looting and violence.

MEV-1 is determined to be a mix of genetic material from pig and bat viruses -- echoing real-world outbreaks SARS and MERS, which were both linked with bats, among other sources. Scientists work around the clock to come up with a cure. Thankfully for those onscreen, Jennifer Ehle's Dr. Hextall successfully identifies a vaccine. By this time, the worldwide death toll has neared 30 million.

But Contagion's conclusion, Shamberg points out, is comforting: "...it shows that ultimately there will be a solution and humanity will recover.

"If it's scary, it's only meant to scare people into taking precautions and it's only meant to scare the infrastructure into doing the right thing."

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