In a world where almost every season news media both traditional and on-line warn the population of what could be an outbreak of a new super-virus that could cause a new pandemic similar to the Spanish Flu of 1918. This was a pandemic which occurred before transcontinental travel was the norm and the virus still managed to kill 1% of the world’s population. Now, it’s 2011 and with warnings of swine flu, bird flu, Ebola, SARS and any number of infectious diseases still in the public’s consciousness we get a new film from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh which seriously explores a world discovering a new deadly disease and how the world responds and deals with the crisis.
Contagion begins with a simple “Day 2” caption as we see one Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) awaiting her flight to board in O’Hare at Chicago. There’s a bit of character building about this character who we see as already in the early stages of what looks to be the flu. From there Soderbergh does an interesting bit where he lets the camera linger for just a split second longer whenever Beth touches something. Soderbergh does this many times that the audience will soon get used to it and forget the significance of the act. We see Beth get a ride home from a colleague back to her home where she’s welcomed home by her husband Mitch and her young son Clark who runs to her and gives her a big hug.
The story really hits the ground running as Beth and soon those she has come into contact with begin to show similar symptoms and quickly die. The CDC and it’s head administrator, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), soon begin to see a pattern to the deaths and the similarity to their symptoms. We soon see another aspect of the story begin with the arrival of Dr. Erin Mears whose job is to investigate the circumstance which seems to be leading into a cluster case starting with Beth and the area she lives in.
The third aspect of this film throws in internet news blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) who begins to suspect that several deaths around the world looks to be interconnected in someway and that the government, the CDC and the WHO (World Health Organization) are trying to hide these disturbing facts from the general public. Krumwiede becomes the purveyor of unfiltered news which seems to do more harm than good as more and more people begin to believe his conspiracy theories about what looks to be a growing global pandemic cause by an unknown virus every expert brought in to help cannot seem to figure out.
Let me just first say that to call Contagion a thriller in the traditional sense would be flimsy at best. Soderbergh and the film’s writer, Scott Z. Burns, have made a thriller but in a sense that it skews heavily on using realism and an almost docudrama style to push the film’s narrative. The thriller aspect comes from the notion that this film’s plot is not far off from actually becoming a real event. There’s no usage of dramatic tropes from past disaster and apocalyptic films to manipulate the audience. The film as a thriller would be quite mundane when stacked up against films like Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain. It’s the realness of the story, the events taking place on the screen which gives the film it’s dramatic heft.
We begin to see what Soderbergh is trying to accomplish with this film. How transcontinental travel which took weeks during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic now can spread a highly infectious disease in a manner of less than a day’s plane flight over one ocean. The film shows in disturbing detail just how easily we as a people can spread a disease just by doing the most innocuous thing like absently touching one’s face many times a minute then transferring whatever we had to any surface we touch. Contagion definitely will add to the paranoia of those who already have an unhealthy habit of disinfecting everything before they even touch it.
The film doesn’t just touch upon the medical side of solving the growing crisis, but also explores how the governmental response and sociological reaction to the epidemic. For the former we see how protocols and the need to slowly disseminate information to the public only adds to the public’s mistrust of the very agencies created to help them in case of such an event. Soderbergh doesn’t condemn or praise these agencies for their bureaucracy. We see the reason why places like the CDC take their time to finally inform the public as we get the unfiltered and manipulative news blog side of the news media in the form of Krumwiede’s blog. While he does dare to ask the questions other more traditional news organizations fail to ask he also becomes too enamored with how many people read his blog that he’s willing to manipulate the news itself in order to gain more followers.
Contagion hits the second half of the film with the world in full crisis mode and the film taking on a more apocalyptic tone. We see streets in San Francisco full of garbage bags as agencies who used to pick them up have either gone on strike or have stopped their daily runs in fear of infection. Then there are the riots at pharmacies and stores as interstate commerce grounds to a halt and no new supplies of goods and sundries make it to stores. Society itself begin to devolve as everyone and every group start to look after their own and begin to turn on others for the dwindling supplies.
It’s here in the second half that we see the film take on some of the more traditional aspects of a thriller, but even here Soderbergh doesn’t seem to want to linger on the more sensational side of the story. He continues, for good or ill, on the narrative style he began with and that’s to see the epidemic from beginning to conclusion in as clinical a manner as possible. It’s for this reason that at times the more intimate and personal side of the film’s story involving the Emhoff family seemed like it was from a different film. The Emhoff’s end up becoming the heart of the film, but it’s this emotional center that never seemed to fit with the sterile and cold narrative style Soderbergh chose to tell the film’s story.
The performances by the star-studded cast was quite good, but no one person really stood out. If I had to choose one it would have to be Kate Winslet’s Dr. Mears who goes out into the field early in the crisis investigating the early stages of the epidemic. We see her frustration at having to deal with local governmental agencies who fear the hit a quarantine would put on local economies (as if people dying in droves wouldn’t be a bigger hit) and the very danger of contracting the disease itself since having no knowledge of how it works she must use means of protection that may or may not protect her. While her story-arc in the film was just one of several it was her’s which really showed a major impact at how impersonal can be and how no one is truly safe.
Contagion is a film that tells a story about the possibility of such an event occurring and does it well, if not in a very clinical way, but it also shows just how unprepared we truly are when it comes to the smallest of creatures who sees us as nothing more than living forms of intercontinental travel. It’s exploration of such a global crisis in all it’s aspects (medical, research, governmental, media and sociological) makes it seem more like a docudrama more at home in the Discovery Channel, The Science Channel and the like instead of a cinema multiplex. It’s all due to Soderbergh’s storytelling skills that he’s able to pull off such a non-traditional thriller and make people more afraid about their surroundings coming out of the film than they were going into it. It’s not one of Soderbergh’s best films, but it’s a strong offering from him and one of the better films to come out in 2011.