More and more people appear to be researching pandemics, and that's clear in their entertainment choices, too. Realistic disease movies like Contagion have climbed up the streaming charts, and in the era of fake news and misinformation, it can be difficult to tell medical fact from science fiction. Which pandemic movies actually paint a realistic picture of what a global medical catastrophe would look like?
These accurate pandemic movies manage to stick to the science, showing realistically how a virus spreads or how virologists protect themselves while conducting research. Of course, these medical crisis films all have a bit of artistic embellishment, but each offers a truthful glimpse at what could happen during a worldwide viral outbreak.
What It Gets Right: Contagion had audiences squirming in their seats any time someone else in the theater coughed, and with good reason. W. Ian Lipkin, a neurologist and epidemiologist, as well as Laurie Garrett, a science journalist and author, consulted producers during the filmmaking process. Steven Soderbergh's 2011 thriller went through 30 drafts to ensure the film accurately portrayed every part of a burgeoning pandemic, from the way the actors physically acted out the symptoms to the worldwide public health response.
Contagion also gets novel virus origins right. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), "Contact with bats (or contact with intermediate animal hosts that acquired infection from bats) is a common theme among some recent emerging human infections," much like how the bat in the film transmits the virus to the pig and creates a hybrid virus.
How It Falls Short: Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), an American white-collar worker who visits Hong Kong, is "patient zero" (i.e., the first person infected during a disease outbreak) in Contagion. Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told The Scientist that it would likely be locals who first suffer from an outbreak - not an international traveler staying in a high-class hotel. “In reality, something that would have been that infectious, you would expect there to be rumblings in local populations,” he explained.
Epidemiologists also have a hard time believing that the scientists in Contagion were able to concoct an effective vaccine in the relatively short span of six months.
Actors: Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, + more
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
What It Gets Right: Aashiq Abu's Virus felt realistic to many because it was something they had experienced. Abu based his 2019 film off the very real Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, India, just a year prior. Several of the characters were based on the health officials on the front line of the outbreak, including nurse Lini Puthussery. The film accurately captures the paranoia that comes with rampant misinformation in the face of an outbreak and the mounting pressure on state officials to take action.
Where It Falls Short: In order to give his film more dramatic weight, Abu played up the tension between state officials surrounding the origin of the virus being possibly linked to bioterrorism. "It is real," Abu said of the fear. "Since no one had any clue (about the source of the virus), this pressure was there from our state team also. It was settled very peacefully though. We just adapted that to build a cinematic pressure."
What It Gets Right: For being based off of a 1969 sci-fi thriller by Michael Crichton, 1971's The Andromeda Strain gets a lot of things right when it comes to biosafety with unknown viruses. According to SciFi Addicts, the elite crew studying an extraterrestrial virus that has wiped out an entire town didn't spare any expense when it came to safety. In fact, the scientists' facilities in the film have all the bells and whistles of a Biosafety Level 4 facility. This is the most secure level of working conditions, as it is designed for scientists studying agents or viruses that are highly infectious, deadly, and have no known therapies or vaccines.
Fans of the film also note that it pays attention to smaller, scientific details - like the fact lasers aren't visible unless there is a gas in the air.
Where It Falls Short: The alien contagion is not only able to mutate, but it can also absorb mass, synthetic materials, and energy itself. This makes the scientists in the film fear that even if they had to nuke their facilities in the case of an outbreak, it would only strengthen the agent. Since the Andromeda Strain is technically extraterrestrial, however, it is easy to see why the filmmakers took some creative license with its abilities. Even scientists of the time worried about the power of extraterrestrial agents.
As microbiologist Joshua Lederberg told Popular Mechanics in 1962, "The return of such samples to Earth exposes us to a hazard of contamination by foreign organisms... [including] the introduction of a new disease which would imperil human life."
Actors: Paula Kelly, David Wayne, Arthur Hill, Eric Christmas, James Olson, + more
Directed by: Robert Wise
What It Gets Right: Outbreak's fictional disease, Motaba, is eerily similar to another viral hemorrhagic fever, Ebola. Like Ebola, the dramatized Motaba is zoonotic, meaning it can be passed from animals to humans directly. We see this happen as Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), a virologist for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), and his colleagues trace the origins of the deadly virus back to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Real-life Dr. Georgios Pappas noted in his paper, "Infectious Diseases in Cinema: Virus Hunters and Killer Microbes," that the 1995 film has "the most accurate depiction of the science of infectious diseases on cinema, the camera follows particles released by sneezing by one of the carriers in the air of a crowded movie theater."
Where It Falls Short: In order to give the film a climactic Hollywood third act, director Wolfgang Petersen puts Daniels in a tight situation: He has to find a cure for this lethal, rapidly mutating virus before the US government nukes the town to keep it from spreading. In a matter of days, Daniels is able to track down a monkey with the necessary antibodies, whip up a vaccine, and save the town from being wiped out.
In real life, it takes months, sometimes even years, for scientists to pinpoint the exact antibodies needed for a vaccine, let alone create one.
Actors: Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Patrick Dempsey, + more
Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen