People may go into Contagion thinking that they’re going to get an plague-spreading action thriller like the 1995 movie Outbreak, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Contagion is a different kind of thriller. One which eschews action-packed preposterous plot developments, and instead goes for a more realistic, and in essence, a much more terrifying approach.
A virus is spreading like wildfire across the globe. It’s infecting people merely by touch. It causes fever, seizures, and then death within days. It is thought that Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is patient zero, the first person on earth to have contracted the disease somewhere in China. The entire movie branches out from her. This movie is shot on a worldwide scale with integral characters living in completely different parts of the world. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) is Beth’s husband whose life quickly spirals out of control as he becomes personally affected by the disease. In Atlanta at the Center of Disease Control (CDC) the government tries to get a handle on the situation. Chief among them is Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who tries to balance the rough nature of his job and whether or not he should give preferential treatment and knowledge to his close family. Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) is working tirelessly on the frontlines inside the CDC trying to find a vaccination for the disease. Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is sent by the CDC to Minneapolis to get a handle on the outbreak there that was started by Beth Emhoff upon her return from her trip. Halfway across the world Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization, tries to piece together the movements of Beth Emhoff from security camera tape at a casino, hoping to find the disease’s origin. In San Francisco Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a once thought crackpot journalist, is slowly gaining a following of believers who think that the government is hiding crucial information about the disease and its cure. I know all of this seems like a lot to take in, but each of these individual story threads are woven into a coherent, and all-too-real outbreak scenario.
What is so refreshing about Contagion is that it shuns Hollywood melodramatics. The characters speak and act like normal people would in a situation like this. It’s easy to see the direction of Steven Soderbergh at work here. He keeps his actors cool and confined. Especially the government bureaucrats who do more meeting and posturing than they do trying to figure out what’s happening and how they can fix it. It’s easy to put ourselves in the shoes of Mitch, who’s just trying to protect the family he has left at any costs.
While the disease is scary, what’s scarier is the way people act when they feel like doomsday is approaching. Fear is the real disease as the streets of America begin to look like post-apocalyptic messes the longer the film goes on. What is portrayed is something that is far too real, because while watching it we can envision something like this actually happening. A virus that spreads across the earth, and then the world’s population going bonkers. Looting and killing. Trampling people in vaccination lines. It’s a scary proposition, but sitting there it’s easy to perceive how the human race can turn so easily when faced with desperation.
There are no quick fixes in Contagion.”No convenient plot devices concocted to give us a cathartic ending. Soderbergh’s tale is one of reality. He asks, “What if?” and then tries his best to show it happen. Perhaps that’s what I admire most about Contagion. It doesn’t feel like it needs to dumb itself down. It doesn’t’ feel like it needs any phony dramatics or action thriller cop-outs. Instead it’s a relentless assault of what might happen to the world if a plague like this cropped up. It’s pretty scary indeed.
You may have heard the saying of needing a shower after a movie; well after Contagion you may feel like you need a complete disinfectant chemical rub-down (in a good way if that’s possible). One thing’s for sure you’ll never leave the bathroom again without washing your hands.