Looking to feed off our fears realized in recent years with H1N1 and Bird Flu director Steven Soderbergh assembled an A-List cast for his new film entry, Contagion.
In this frightening and all-too-real depiction of a deadly disease that has international mortality rate, Contagion shows us that a deadly outbreak could be far worse than any terrorist attack or war due to the political and budgetary red tape that would stand in the war of doctors attempting to find a cure.
Contagion starts on “Day 2”. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning from a trip to Asia and is returning through Chicago and Minnesota already showing signs of a new disease. Soderbergh works the camera showing everything that Beth comes in contact with – the peanuts at a bar, her phone, poker ships at a casino – to heighten our awareness of how powerless we would be to contain a fast spreading virus.
Upon her return to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and young child, Beth continues on her downward spiral and soon seizures and is brought to the hospital where she dies soon after. Doctors are baffled, but when Mitch’s young son dies and an autopsy is performed on Beth, the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) in Atlanta, Georgia immediately begins operations under the instruction of Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne).
Dr. Ellis Cheever hires Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) as his legs on the ground and we watch as the CDC along with doctors and scientists around the world work independently in an attempt to find a cure to a disease that may have infected as many as 1 in 12.
Not since Outbreak in 1995 has there been a film to play on the fears of a reality of an unknown virus infecting a mass populace. The realization of the potential actuality of such events hit audiences like a sledgehammer to the body. And anyone that thinks Contagion could never unfold in our developed world where a search for a cure would overtake any political or corporate profiteering, you would have to look no further than HBO’s And The Band Played On back in 1993 to see how personal glory stood in the way of progress in the diagnosis of the AIDS virus in the early 1980’s.
With a supporting cast that includes everyone from John Hawkes to Bryan Cranston to Marion Cottilard, there are enough characters in Contagion for everyone to find someone to which they would relate. Whether it be the over protective father (Damon) that won’t let his daughter out of the house or the janitor father (Hawkes) that wants nothing more than to protect his child and believes that the CDC is his only hope, there is someone of personal relation to any audience member and Contagion does everything including initiating its viewers to ask themselves “What would I do?”
Steven Soderbergh does little to provoke confidence in the CDC or pharmaceutical institutions. Nor does he spare the world populace of unspeakable crimes that include looting and murder for supplies and suspected serums containing antibodies.
With so many plotlines being thrown at the audience, it is expected that some would work better than others while still others will fall flat in both personal involvement or plot development. Jude Law’s character, Alan, is a blogger that attempts to use his internet followers to raise awareness of a government cover-up. He goes from crusader to profiteer and has the biggest transformation of any of film’s characters. Marion Cottilard plays Dr. Orantes who gets kidnapped for an exchange of vials of the new cure. Although both stories take up a large part of the film, neither really drive the plot forward – in particular the Cottilard storyline – and could probably have been left on the cutting room floor and replaced with more backroom research and boardroom table conversations on dealing with the obstacles deterring the development of a cure.
Contagion is a good film, and maybe more interestingly, an important one. It will do nothing to open our eyes or change the events that would occur in the event of an outbreak, but it does show how helpless our independent thinking and process acknowledgement would interfere if such a disease ever became our nightmare. It ends 135 days after it all began (which is the one element that just didn’t feel believable amidst all impediments) and Soderbergh takes us full circle back to Day 1. It is a 135 day journey into our darkest fears and our worst terrors.