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MindFood: Can a Movie Change People's Behavior?

Steven Soderbergh's viral epidemic flick Contagion opens this week and I'm going to go out onto a limb and say it's going to have plenty of people talking. I've seen the movie. I've sat in a crowded theater and watched people turn their heads in a disgusted, nervous panic whenever someone nearby let out so much as a sniffle. I've heard the conversations on the way out, the playful ribbing about how it's time to stock up on antibacterial soap and never leave the house again. I've seen the Contagion effect on people first hand—it's pretty impressive. Having said that, however, I wonder if it will last. How many people will actually change their behavior because of the film?

Obviously no one is expecting crowds to walk out of theaters this weekend having been instantly converted into a Howard Hughes-level germaphobes, but can a movie like Contagion actually elevate our collective situational awareness? Is it even Soderbergh's intent to scare us into becoming more acutely aware of epidemiological threats to the world?

That last question is hard to answer without talking to Soderbergh or his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, but it's no great stretch to imagine that's exactly what they're going for here. Despite the trailer making it out to be a tightly-wound thriller, Contagion is considerably calmer; a disaster movie in slow (buy highly entertaining) motion. It's a satellite view examination of how our government, its citizens and the world around them both would realistically respond to a new, drug-resistant virus that spreads faster than smallpox. In a way, Contagion is the anti-Outbreak. It's not about a fear of the virus. It's not about preventing an outbreak or even combating one. It's about weathering a global storm we can do very little about.

In that regard, Soderbergh and company are actually taking a lot of the bite out of the fear mongering we've seen in media (both press and films) whenever it comes to a potential new epidemic, like SARS or H1N1. The film casts a surprisingly rational light on the government and how they handle the situation, and it does a tremendous job of showing how science takes persistence, not miracles. Basically, Contagion is about illustrating how order is the only way to beat chaos.

But is that the message people will get from Contagion? Sadly, probably not. If anything, most people will walk away from the movie thinking that Gwenyth Paltrow is gross, riding on buses is a nasty thing to do, and they need to go to Sam's club and stock up on Purell and Bagle Bites. And that's fine, because those are certainly things to take away from the film, but I question if they're actionable. For as intimidated and squirmy as Contagion can make you feel, if documentaries can't spur people to action, what shot does fiction have?

We've all seen documentaries that have exposed us to something we either never knew about or never fully understood, and we've no doubt all felt that rage right as those credits roll. But how many of us actually act on the passion we feel while watching a movie? Sure, documentaries like Super Size Me may have an effect on corporations, but did it actually, permanently kill anyone's fast food habits? Has Hot Coffee, a highly effect documentary about our civil court system, caused an influx of letters to Congress demanding change? Did An Inconvenient Truth make you trade your gas-guzzler for a hybrid?

Sadly, Contagion is in the same boat as some of the most popular documentaries of our time. It's going to be a hot topic and will cause a stir as people are watching it. But people these days are so restless, they'll move on. They won't forget about the film entirely—the images and the story are just too striking for that to happen—but its lessons will fall on deaf ears. Contagion probably won't start any conversations about how chaos, be it genetic or mental, is a system's greatest enemy. Instead, it'll be something more like, "Hey, what was the name of that movie about the virus? No, not Outbreak, the other one."

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