This week we take a lighthearted look at some popular virus outbreak movies and weigh in on whether key elements in the movie are either fact or fiction.
During lockdown many have taken comfort in streaming services like Netflix and Showmax to make time go by a little bit faster. After binging light-hearted comedies and the latest box office giants many start going through the archives and are naturally drawn to movies depicting elements of our current situation.
Off the back of the Coronavirus pandemic we asked ourselves: do outbreak movies follow good hygiene practices? My simple and blunt answer is no, no they don’t… What I’ve generally noticed is that modern movies go to great lengths to get the science in the plot right - with the exception of those who tend to take creative liberties in order to have a plot that works. However one trend I have seen is that good hygiene practices aren’t always adhered to by characters in the movie, even though in reality proper hygiene is at the forefront of most virus prevention guidelines.
Take the movie Contagion as an example: the movie depicts a series of events that result in a grand scale virus outbreak. An outbreak that could have easily been prevented had the chef - who had previously handled a contaminated pig - just washed his hands before touching Gwyneth Paltrow’s character (who happened to become patient zero after the contact). This is however an accurate depiction of how easily a virus can spread, as seen with the Covid-19 virus pandemic.
Here are the top popular movies that we took a look at:
Contagion: Immediate Symptoms & Dramatic Death Scenes
The movie did a great job at getting a lot of the medical science right: accurately depicting the mode in which a virus would spread. In this case, it was a zoonotic disease - a disease that is spread by an infected animal transferring the disease to another animal or person. They also stressed the need to adhere to good hygiene practices such as regular hand washing and social distancing.
However, what the movie may have exaggerated is the speed in which the infected individuals showed symptoms. In reality it usually takes a while for infected individuals to show symptoms, which is one of the reasons social distancing is so important during the Coronavirus pandemic, as people may have the virus and not yet show symptoms, or they may even be infected and completely asymptomatic.
In addition, it wouldn't be Hollywood if the movie didn’t have a dramatic death scene or two for the viewer. In the case of Contagion this comes when Gwyneth Paltrow’s character bites the dust: her body spasms and jerks as her husband watches in horror. In real life one is far more likely to pass quietly after lingering unconscious for a while… but of course that sort of realistic depiction would not fill seats at the cinema.
Dawn of The Planet of The Apes: Patient Zero The Serial Infector
In movies (and social media) there is often the notion of a global viral infection stemming from one individual - who then spreads it to the masses: Patient Zero. In the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the movie centres around the idea that the spread of the fictional virus ALZ-113 (Simian flu) to global pandemic is caused by one individual. I have also seen this idea being perpetuated on social media with our current virus outbreak, but as investigative journalist Dina Fine Maron points out, “disease vectors are just too complex for a single person to be blamed”.
In most cases more than one person tends to come into contact with the initial source of the disease due to cross contamination (see the Journey of the Germ). In Contagion the farmers, chef and the first person to contract the virus (Gwyneth Paltrow’s character) all were potentially able to spread the virus, as opposed to just the one “patient zero” that movies and media depict. This illustrates how one contaminated contact source can increase the chance of virus spreading through cross-contamination.
Carriers: Masks Being The Be All End All Virus Protection
I’ve seen this mistake in quite a number of movies. You'll often see characters suddenly fully protected from the virus once they put on a basic mask that you’d find at a local store. In the case of the 2009 movie Carriers, the masks worn by the four main characters are dust masks, often used for construction. While these masks can stop dust particles they would do nothing to prevent an airborne virus from entering a person’s respiratory system. Worse still is expecting the mask alone to prevent infection from other, clearly infected, characters in the movie. As we know, washing your hands, avoiding contaminated areas, practicing social distancing and not touching your face are the best ways to ensure that you do not contract a virus of that nature, all of which the movie failed to adhere to.
Having gone through these movies with a fine tooth comb you start seeing cross-contamination in a new light. For starters, Contagion would have ended mid-way through the opening credits had they practiced good hand hygiene, and the main characters of Carriers would have all contracted the virus early on.
Be it oversight or intentional I guess they wouldn’t have made nearly such gripping viewing had these movies followed hygiene guidelines. I personally think seeing Chris Pine running around in what looks like a hazmat suit throughout Carriers would have been a waste!