Contagion (2011)

I’ve never been particularly impressed with scary movies. Growing up, scary movies had so little to offer that I could connect with, outside of the standard suburban setting and a general fear of death. An omnipresent psychopath who can’t be killed doesn’t jive with my notions of reality, and incessant gore is more disturbing than scary. But Contagion, the latest product of Steven Soderbergh‘s telescopic curiosity, is truly frightening. It follows the path of a diabolical virus as scores of people die and the world’s population loses its collective mind. It illuminates with strict veracity the rapid downward spiral of panicked masses, and it does so in a world as close to ours as the big screen can accommodate.

Contagion is a mess of characters and stories. It begins with the illness and sudden death of Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), and branches out in all directions: to the other individuals somehow infected by the virus, to the members of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet) and World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) whose job it is to respond to this sudden epidemic, to the scientist (Jennifer Ehle) tasked with creating a vaccine, to the blogger turned prophet (Jude Law), to the husband (Matt Damon) and child Beth left behind. This is a story told from multiple points of view, and just as any story with multiple storytellers ends up a bit serpentine, so is Contagion occasionally convoluted. It’s no accident though, as Soderbergh is the type of director disinterested in making everything clean and nice for you. His films require a bit of intuition, and a bit of work on the part of the viewer. But that effort is worth the reward, as it pulls you deeper into a film which is all the better for your immersion. Experiencing this story viscerally makes it real, and the realer this story is, the more terrifying it is.

Contagion is apocalyptic in scope, traveling all over the globe to illustrate the power of fear. Though it is a virus that incites the events of the film, it is surely the predictability of human nature that makes it effecting. As the death toll rises exponentially, and cities begin to quarantine, the masses panic. There are empty shelves in the grocery store, and looted storefronts, even murders in the night, and that’s just in the Chicago suburbs. Damon’s character Mitch is our only civilian point of view amidst a lot of doctors and servicemen, and though he maintains a brave front, his edges seem more and more frayed as the film goes on. And who can blame him, the world is falling apart in front of his eyes.

This isn’t a performance movie, as the human drama of the whole situation seems to interest Soderbergh only minimally; he rarely lets his camera linger on despair or melodrama. Nonetheless, a few actors really shine. Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears is diligent but drawn, killing herself for people who have no interest in her help. And Jude Law gives one of his better performances of the last decade as the self-aggrandizing blogger, Alan Krumwiede. But as I said before, this isn’t a movie keen on showing off its talent; actors are here primarily to bring life to characters we already vaguely understand. Contagion is mostly telling us the story of the people who want to help, the heroes of this scenario. And just as the rest of the film is dictated by reality, these heroes don’t seem particularly heroic, and are surely capable of missteps.

In the end, the power of this story is going to be lost on a lot of people. We’ve seen far more glamorous apocalypses than this one, and at face value it doesn’t distinguish itself enough in a dramatic way to be anything special to the average summer (or even end of summer) viewer. But Contagion is realer than anything you’ve ever seen, a scenario based as much on facts and science as drama. Soderbergh seems like a director interested in exercises, and his latest film is precisely that: an exercise in chaos and fear, and what it would be like to watch the world end. And for all its meandering and hinting, it is a frightening success.

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3 responses to “Contagion (2011)

  1. I also saw “Contagion” this weekend, and enjoyed it very much. I think it did a wonderful job at intelligibly pointing out the ways that a pandemic might effect society. The riots and looting, in context, didn’t even strike me as convoluted.
    One thing I wonder about, though. So, the film basically assumes that in highly-effected areas, a full quarantine was in place. That means that no one was at work, no one was at school, and areas of public accommodation were basically shut down (there were several pan shots of empty airports, stores and offices illustrating this.) After the chaotic grocery store scene, we see citizens receiving pre-made meals from trucks. Okay, fine – this kind of a full quarantine would not be out of the question, and it is actually a plan similar to the CDC’s ‘last resort’ plan, as far as I know.
    Anyway, despite all of this, the film’s quarantine paradigm allowed for completely unadulterated cellular and internet access. Is this a reasonable assumption? I don’t really know about how the internet works or how mobile towers stay functioning, but it did occur to me that their functionality in the event of a complete social breakdown would not be a given. It is all the more frightening to consider that in a true worldwide emergency, we might not even have these tools to count on.
    Also, SPOILER ALERT!!!
    Did you find it odd that M. Cotillard’s character fled at the end, presumably to return to the village she bonded with to warn them of the inefficacy of the placebo? Because, yeah, I totally get that she bonded with the kids. Understood. But she was also being used as literal human collateral, and I think it would have been a better choice to call or text that village instead of basically delivering herself directly back to armed captors to say, “yeah, your conditions for which you released me weren’t met.” Wouldn’t they, um, take it out on her? The way they promised? Odd loose end that was not tied up.

  2. I guess the only thing I could say about the quarantine question is that there’s a difference between a quarantine and a police state (I think) and no reason to assume they would do something so drastic as cut off internet and cell phone communication. If nothing else, that would be the most effective way of getting information to the masses, and I would think any democratic government would be more interested in the positives of leaving that communication in place then the negatives (of which there would surely be many). Put another way: it wouldn’t be worth the chaos and lack of communication to silence a few contrary loudmouths (e.g. Alan Krumwiede).

    I didn’t think it was odd, and more than that, I thought it was necessary for her to have such a dramatic and reactionary moment. There was very little of the human side to this whole scenario, or at least, far less than the average director would have felt necessary, so having a moment like that one at the end went a long way. And I don’t think they would have hurt her. Desperation is different from evil, and there’s never any reason to think of those villagers as thugs or villains, just desperate poor folk.

  3. Perhaps I was a bit unclear. I don’t think any government would make a decision as abysmal as, “well, let’s shut off the internet and cell phones.”
    What I do wonder is: in a world in which people are not working and are not generating any money, and in which air travel (and the global distribution of commodities,) are almost completely shut down, would there be an adequate economic and social infrastructure to keep the internet and cell towers functioning? I am asking, not exactly telling. I have no idea why the internet runs – it just does. So does my phone. But it seems to me that there is some invisible network of mechanisms that make this so. In general, actually, the movie didn’t give adequate attention to the complete economic collapse that would ensue in a situation like this.
    Don’t quote me – but I am pretty sure that internet and cell service are primarily privatized businesses. In a dramatic collapse of all global commerce for a sustained period, (not to mention the fact that, quarantined from work, people are far less able to pay for the services,) these companies would surely fail. That would mean that to keep these things running, there would have to be a massive expenditure of governmental resources to federally subsidize them. Even if we assume that the governments around the world would all benevolently decide to comp its citizens’ internet and cell bills, we must remember also that, at this point, all of these governments have been running full-capacity welfare states for months. They are certainly not generating tax revenue, they are spending oodles of money to fund public health initiatives (research, quarantine, treatment,) and they are presumably providing all basic needs for a populace who can’t procure them otherwise (like the freeze-dried meals.) Meanwhile, the bill for law enforcement obviously went up during this period, and the aftermath of this hypothetical crisis would obviously be an expensive one. As far as I can tell, most commercial economic activity was completely shut down, so you’d have to assume that the state in question had all of this money stored for a rainy day. That might be the case for a select few states, but not for most – and the privileged states would not have been in a position to aid the bankrupt ones.
    So, I don’t know what would happen with all of that. But it would be problematic. And I don’t think that unencumbered cell and internet service would be a guarantee.

    I was also touched by the moment at the end, and I agree that the people were basically decent but desperate villagers. But, I also think they seemed quite resolute, and I did not think they were bluffing when they demanded the vaccine from the WHO and used Cotillard as collateral. I also don’t necessarily doubt that they would have been absolutely furious to hear that they had been given placebos, and that they felt they had nothing to lose to send a message back to the WHO. This is especially true given the fact that she was seen bonding with the schoolchildren, and not necessarily with her captors. But, in the end, it was a touching scene, so I am okay with its inclusion.

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