Contagion opens with Gwyneth Paltrow coughing. She's on her cell phone at an airport, about to board a flight. Cameras observe the various things she is touching, the ways germs are being transferred. A few scenes later—after a fast-paced montage shows a handful of other coughing individuals in places like Hong Kong and London—Paltrow's character returns home to her husband (Matt Damon) and young son, her violent illness worsening. Within the film's first five minutes, she is dead and autopsied, and so is her son.
The fast paced, take-no-prisoners opening of Contagion sets the tone for the film. From the get go, director Steven Soderbergh establishes the pace (rapid), the scale (global), and the stakes (no one is safe—not even Gwyneth Paltrow and not even little children). From there, the film launches in to meticulous, globetrotting narrative of the pandemic outbreak of a mysterious, hitherto unknown virus that kills its victims within days. With a documentary-esque attention to detail and realism, Contagion takes a disturbing look at just what it might look like if, in 2011, an outbreak like this occurred.
Evoking his past ensemble-rich films like Traffic and Oceans 11, Soderbergh's Contagion alternates rapidly between a number of storylines related to the outbreak. Most prominent in the film are the characters from the Center for Disease Control, featuring Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle as doctors tasked with understanding the lethal airborne virus and developing a vaccine before it gets out of control. Then there is Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization official dispatched to East Asia to investigate the origins of the virus and pinpoint the location of the "index patient." Other prominent cast members include Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Jude Law, the latter playing an opportunistic blogger who rises to influence (7 million unique daily visitors!) in the midst of the crisis by suggesting government cover-ups and CDC collusion with the pharmaceutical industry.
There are a few things that make Contagion rise above its peers in the "disaster/disease outbreak" movie genre. One is its filmmaking caliber. Contagion is a well-made, superbly acted, stylish thriller. Soderbergh is particularly talented at combining arthouse smarts with populist entertainment value, and it shows here. The film's editing is impressively taut and economical, covering about a half year in the life of a global health calamity in the span of about 100 minutes, pausing at appropriate moments for quiet interpersonal exchanges and emotional expressions of individual characters.
Another strength of Contagion is its perceptive, provocative commentary on contemporary society. The film is very much of the moment, reflecting on things like how technology (blogging, Twitter, etc.) can exacerbate panic and rapidly spread misinformation (faster sometimes than even airborne diseases). There is also an interesting pro-government subtext to the film. At a time when the political right seems focused on demonizing the federal government, Contagion takes pains to illustrate the plus sides of government: for example, the value of a coordinated federal disaster response equipped with funding and authority to get all the states and municipalities on the same page, or the value of mandated food regulations in keeping diseased animals from reaching kitchens and consumers. Sometimes the film's politics get too obvious: A city government employee is ridiculously demonized for complaining about federal authorities taking over the local disease containment. But most of the time, Contagion's political questions remain secondary to its primary task: grippingly showing the human drama that might unfold should a disaster of this scale take place.
The apocalyptic chaos of it all is unsettling, to say the least. There are riots and stampedes when food shortages occur and infrastructure shuts down. Local law enforcement struggle to maintain order as their forces are depleted due to desertion. People stay in their houses for fear of being infected but have to fend off looters. It's a scene somewhere between The Road and 28 Days Later, sans zombies. And yet Contagion feels much more hopeful, much more affirming than similar films of this genre.
As the world struggles to survive against its naturalistic foe—a mutating, adaptive virus killing most every cell it comes in contact with—some saviors emerge who embody self-sacrificial heroism. They are doctors willing to put themselves in the infected regions in order to save lives, scientists willing to inject themselves with still-unproven vaccines in order to expedite the testing phases, fathers willing to do anything to keep their healthy daughters from getting infected. At the end of the day, most of the main characters in Contagion are shown doing what's best for humanity. Selfishness and animalistic survival instincts do not win the day.
Where other films might indulge in bleak, exaggerated horror to make the point that "we are all base, kill-or-be-killed savages," Contagion gives human goodness the benefit of the doubt. Sure, there are corrupt people in the film, governments and businesses that don't always care about the greater good. But Contagion seems to go out of its way to show that, in the midst of tragedy, "doing what's right" triumphs more often than not. Is this naïve? Possibly, but it's somehow more believable than the "we will all kill each other" visions of other apocalyptic fare (The Walking Dead, for example).
The movie is more interested in showing the best-case scenario for a worst-case scenario disaster like this. It's a film about something that could happen, and how humans might respond. It's a cautionary tale, a modern "what if?" tract meant to raise awareness of a very real threat. In our globalized, hyper-connected, fast-paced world, a contagion like this is a problem that will face every last one of us; and it's a problem we'll have to work together to solve.
Contagion shows us that "working together" is still possible, still necessary. And in a world as divided and partisan as ours, that's an encouragement we need to receive.Discussion starters
- Who are the heroes of the film? What are their most heroic actions?
- Why do we always look for someone or something to blame when bad things happen? Talk about the various things that might be "blamed" for the contagion.
- What does a film like this reveal about human nature?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Contagion is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language. There are a few disturbing images (such as one dead character's head being cut open in an autopsy) and a pervasive feeling of dread, with numerous main characters of all ages falling victim to the virus. There is some objectionable language as well, but it's not widespread. Parents of young children should be aware of the adult themes and disturbing, scary content, but for teens, Contagion is relatively safe entertainment that raises interesting issues and discussions about our contemporary world.
Photos © Warner Bros.
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