by Mariusz Zubrowski
Film Monthly Home
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Who remembers the 2009 H1N1 pandemic? It’s safe to say that most North Americans remember those couple of weeks, when the only thing on the news were follow-up reports on what scientists had discovered about the flu strain. I recall schools and workplaces being packed with usually resilient New Yorkers. Each and every one wore surgical masks and preached their solutions (the most absurd proposal was to ship all those sick to an island and execute them—just thought I’d share). Being an oblivious teenager, I refused to do either. Needless to say, I’m still here!
Now imagine that same situation on steroids. What would’ve happened if an unknown virus spread from Hong Kong to London, Minneapolis, Tokyo, San Francisco, Switzerland, and Chicago? What if the bug killed nearly instantly? What if you and your family were forced to split-up into military-issued camps? The consequences would be dire. Thankfully, for those (very few) wondering how we’d react to such a happenstance, there’s Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
The film, written by Scott Z. Burns, chronicles the results of a deadly outbreak that spreads internationally, quickly adapting to the human immune system. There is no vaccine, no treatment plan, and the only way to prevent infection is to quarantine the sick and isolate anyone that might be a risk. Among the millions affected, Contagion follows a group of individuals for several months. There’s Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), a family-man that simultaneously loses his wife, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), and step-son (Joshua Seiden); Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), who works at the CDC; his partner, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet); Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an epidemiologist; and Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a conspiracy theorist who believes that he’s found the cure.
When I read about NASA making a public statement telling audiences that the recent horror mockumentary, Apollo 18, is a work of fiction, I wondered if the CDC would comment on Contagion. While researching the production, I found out that similar warnings were already made by Dr. Barbara Reynolds, the CDC’s senior adviser on crisis communication. “I think it’s important for people to recognize there’s a threat out there. Not only can it happen, but in different degrees it already has happened,” she reported. She continued by stating that a crisis like the one depicted in the film can happen on any day, and told listeners to “protect [their] health, exercise, eat well, [and] get sleep.”
Although, unlike the aforementioned cosmic misadventure, Apollo 18 (which, to add realism, was shot to look like old recordings), Soderbergh’s fall thriller was filmed traditionally. It relies on its fantastic script to drive the message home. The build-up is realistic, depicting how the virus is first thought of as a seasonal scare, eventually becoming an international threat—the president and other world-leaders being rushed to undisclosed locations—before leading to widespread panic and civil disobedience, with helpless Americans burning and shooting their way to a cure. And, in a post-9/11 society, it’s no surprise that a terrorist plot is also suspected at one point.
Because we’re not scoffing at the situations for being too campy or far-fetched, the story remains a memorable vision of how something as small as a virus can turn an otherwise functioning society into a dystopia.
Burns’ screenplay, however, focuses more on the characters themselves. Each personality has a distinct impact on the intertwining story. Beth’s darkest secrets are slowly revealed as Mitch grieves her loss, struggling to protect his biological daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron); Dr. Cheever, who means well, is faced with ethics investigations; Roger (John Hawkes), a lowly janitor, strives to keep his son safe; Dr. Mears becomes dangerously involved in trying to unravel the mystery; and Dr. Orantes starts to question her government’s actions.
But, ironically, the first act’s comedic relief, Krumwiede, has the sharpest metamorphosis, going from a disrespected blogger trying to tell his readers the truth to a false prophet, acquiring newfound fame and fortune. Like the pharmaceutical companies that he once spoke out against, he’s one of the few to profit off of the epidemic.
As an ensemble piece, Contagion benefits from an all-star, all-talent cast. Law’s performance isn’t as hammy as it could’ve been, Cotillard plays to her natural mysteriousness, Winslet has a knack for portraying the obsessed and overworked, and Damon is both likeable and believable as a desperate father.
Unlike many disaster movies, Soderbergh’s latest film doesn’t have the protagonists single-handedly debunking a government conspiracy. That’s the major draw of Contagion: It focuses not on how Hollywood characters would react to a biological crisis, but on how the average Joe would, making the film a genuinely unsettling blockbuster that you should head out to the theater to see.
Unless you’re sick. Then it’s better to stay at home.
Mariusz Zubrowski is a student at the New York Film Academy. One of the youngest professional critics on the net, he’s only 18 years old and has already written for several online publications. Currently, Mariusz spends his free time running The Corner Society, a webzine that caters to unknown authors.
Got a problem? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org