In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are interested in the films Contagion (2011), directed by Steven Soderbergh, and Outbreak (1995), directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Both movies represent either an outbreak or pandemic, much like the scenario we are going through right now. Contagion is obviously a pandemic scenario, so it is more similar than Outbreak to COVID-19. The film Outbreak, as the title indicates, depicts an outbreak scenario.
As I am reviewing two movies, I will split this review up into two sections. For further clarification, I will still make note between the two movies as a cross-reference. I also want to note that most of the flaws in the movies were not intrinsically in the plot. Most of the flaws seemed to be in the actor’s presentation or mannerisms while in specific settings.
Showing movies in class to replace a lecture has always been a student’s dream, and it never hurts for the teacher to show it if the movie is an educational one. In biology classrooms, in the twenty-first century the go-to movie for biology teachers has been Osmosis Jones (2001), directed by Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, and Tom Sito. I even remember watching this film at least three times throughout my whole education. It is a great, reminiscent and iconic movie. For me, this movie will always be closely intertwined with biology. Sadly, some of the biology in this film is inaccurate. However, there are plenty of times when a scientific concept is correctly used subtlety in this film.
The antagonist of this film is named “Thrax” which stems from the pathogen anthrax (Bacillus anthracis). Thrax is a pathogen that invades Frank, a medically ignorant human that acts as the setting for most of the movie as it takes place in his body. The identity of the pathogen that Thrax is, was never identified. The two best theories are anthrax or scarlet fever, but both of these illnesses are bacterial and Thrax was identified to be a virus. The protagonist in this film is Osmosis Jones who is a white blood cell in Frank’s body and can be assumed to be a neutrophil. This is because neutrophils can circulate throughout most of the body and eliminate any foreign microbes at the site of infection, which is Osmosis Jones’ job throughout the film.
Skyfall (2012), directed by Sam Mendes, didn’t only feature the popular Adele song, Skyfall, but it also contained a controversial amount of scientific inaccuracies. The James Bond series has had its fair share of memorable scientific inaccuracies, but Skyfall is the twenty-third film in the series, and you would assume that maybe they have learned from their past flaws. However, this film likes to prove otherwise. As I will discuss later, the whole plot of this film is largely built on an inaccuracy. However, the science portrayed in this film mainly revolves around computer science.
The computer science depicted in Skyfall has been controversial as it contains a good mix of accuracies and inaccuracies. The first hacking scene in the film, when Silva, the villainous ex MI6 agent, hacks into M’s laptop (M is Bond’s superior and the head of MI6) and displays “THINK ON YOUR SINS”. This hacking event is very plausible. The second hacking event is when Silva hacks into the computer-controlled gas lines of the MI6 headquarters and causes an explosion. In theory, this is possible as hacking and disrupting infrastructure is practiced by the US army, but there are so many plausible safety features on the gas infrastructures that would likely prevent this whole event from occurring. The third event was Q, the MI6 quartermaster, attempting to hack Silva. This whole scene was… interesting. Visually, it is pretty inaccurate. The actual hacking process would take place in a command line and not on some fancy high-tech screen. The dialog that Q is blurting out is nonsensical comp-Sci jargon. One extremely applaudable moment in this scene occurs when Q states that the malware was “mutating”, which means that the malware was changing its memory to prevent any damage from occurring. This is realistic and is an issue that some hackers would have to worry about.
The Andromeda Strain (1971), directed by Robert Wise, can be found among almost every “must watch” sci-fi film list. Aside from its outstanding reviews in the sci-fi community, this film is also revered for its amazing scientific accuracy at the time. Some of the science is a little outdated, but in the 70’s, this film held up with most of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and microbiology practices at the time. Before I start pointing out some of the amazing accuracies, there is an unforgettable scar in the movie for some terrible inaccuracy.
Before the elite group of scientists return to their laboratory to identify the extra-terrestrial microorganism from the outbreak zone, they must go through a decontamination and immunization process. The primary flaw in this scene is that the scientists expose themselves to a xenon light in order to burn their top layer of epithelium (skin). Yes, the human body does have a layer of flora, which is essentially an ecosystem of friendly microorganisms living on the skin, and if you want to keep a lab COMPLETELY sterile, the flora would be an issue.
In your head, try to construct the most epic space battle possible. Take some time to let this battle play out. In this battle, you probably included some amazing starships with roaring engines and huge explosions. Perhaps you have one ship shooting another down which is engulfed in flames, or a ship with a wailing engine plummeting into another ship resulting in an ear-shattering collision. Sadly, there is one major issue with this scene, and that issue is that this scene is overwhelmingly scientifically inaccurate by all understandings of science in space. These inaccuracies have been perpetuated through films that you may have watched in your life. There are no scientific grounds to allow either sound in space, explosions, fire in space, or even something plummeting without the command to do so. However, the inaccurate depiction of concepts has been normalized and can sometimes go completely unnoticed by the general audience. These inaccuracies are not confined to the Sci-Fi genre.