Saturday, September 10, 2011

SECTOR C Vs. Contagion: Smackdown!

Remember all those compare-and-contrast essays you had to write for English class? Yeah, well this post won’t be so formal, I promise, but the premise is the same. For the simplified version, see the chart here.

Mild spoilers for both the book and the movie below.

OK, I know they are two different media, but some of the underlying themes and risks that Contagion, the new movie, takes are echoed in SECTOR C. It’s natural that I want to know how audiences respond to the movie.

For one, the movie circles around trying to find its main characters. There are a lot of little-more-than-cameo performances, which is why it can include the named cast it does. In that, it feels more like a documentary than a movie and produces a more distancing effect.

SECTOR C circles in the beginning too, though it does land on two main characters who are threaded through the first half of the story and spotlighted in the second half.

The mystery of what the disease is and how it began is at the center of both vehicles.

They both focus heavily on the scientific response.

They both discuss the role private enterprise might play.

They both gloss a bit over the full impact the disease has on the individual. There are scenes in both where death is shown up close, but because of the crisis mode, the scenes feel a little clinical, a little sterile. Again, a little distancing.

Contagion takes the greater risk, I think, in showing us the science in a movie. Are movie audiences ready to sit through a thriller that doesn’t really thrill in the classic sense? It offers a plausible glimpse into events that could be without a lot of sentiment or time bomb ticking at the individual level, saving that for society in general and giving us a more global feel for how the crisis plays out.

In contrast, SECTOR C displaces focus from the global onto a regional response. It takes that narrow response one step further by not dwelling on ordinary people deep in crisis but showing select reaction at the beginning of the crisis before much is known about it. Too, the focus is dispersed. The disease in SECTOR C is not limited to one or two species, and there is a deliberate attempt to concentrate on the animal-related response since the human-centric response is dealt with so well in so many other pandemic thrillers.

The science, in written form, goes down more easily, I think, and people who don’t really care about it or who don't understand it can skim it to get back to “the story,” something not so easily done in a movie theater.

The movie takes the greater risk, too, in presenting a realistic ending done within realistic timeframes. It’s only real bow to a Hollywood-type ending comes in the last few frames (think Carrie).

In truth, this ending is the thing I’m most watching response to and reading reviews for. It isn’t neat and tidy. Neither is SECTOR C’s. It’s a feel-good-for-now-for-specific-people type ending, but the book leaves off without offering a full resolution to the crisis. That’s left to the reader’s imagination and is hopefully part of what makes this, as one reader called it, an “intelligent thriller.”

That said, while Contagion gives us a completely plausible and unsettling story line, it doesn’t give us anything new to really think about. People were already using paper towels to open restroom doors and coughing into their sleeves before Contagion came out. The movie simply shows us graphically how contagious diseases spread and reminds us to be vigilant about the contact we have with others and with objects others come into contact with.

But beyond that? For me, there were so many more interesting ways this movie could have gone and many more questions it could have posed to leave the audience thinking about it long after they walked out of the theater.

Whether SECTOR C succeeds on that level or not, I’m not going to venture. Only its readers can tell us that. However, business ethics and animal rights are collateral themes explored. The disease isn't what the book is about in the same way the pandemic defines Contagion.

In fact, in two respects, SECTOR C is more “Hollywood” than Contagion:
  • Patient Zero is the stuff out of science fiction. And yet, science has a way of catching up to the fiction, doesn’t it? SECTOR C takes place a dozen years in the future. I think that’s just about right given where the science is at today.
  • The mystery of the disease is resolved in the first 2/3 of the book. The latter 1/3 is more thriller-esque, what with fires and an explosion and running and shooting and chomping.
If you’ve seen Contagion, how did you respond?

If you haven’t seen it, is there something about it (other than a fab cast) that makes you want to see it? Or not see it?

1 comment:

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Patient zero in the AIDS HIV start up was traced to a male flight crew member from the info I've read over the years. SARS was/is a man made virus that escaped from the lab from what my Asian friends have told me.

I haven't seen the the movie. I've read your book. Your book lays out some very scary stuff in a realistic manner.

Shudder. So easy for the world as we know it to slip away. Gasp, gulp.

Look at West Nile fever. Spread like butter through our animal friends.