Contagion is the type of movie that might rub quite a few people the wrong way just because of the manner in which it shamelessly bares its premise. It’s the type of film that may as well have been conjured up by the masterminds down at the hand-sanitizer factory, because their latest sales plan involving a certain… illness (involving hogs) has finally managed to die down. It aims straight for our tendency to panic ourselves into a stupor and trample over one another like Wal-Mart shoppers during the Holiday Season.
It’s an easy sell, and it’ll sell even more “top 10 ways not to bring home diseases from school” articles to the local papers. People will see it, and afterward they’ll likely tell you not to touch your face every time you unconsciously brush your nose. Then they’ll stroke their chin as they soak in some juicy self-satisfaction.
Obvious pandering aside, Contagion remains a slick, well-paced action-thriller that tells the more subjective and humane side of a world-wide pandemic that amounts to what is basically a zombie movie, sans the zombies. The dying walk the Earth and risk contaminating those who’ve already struggled enough to live another day. One wayward sneeze, one cramped elevator, one indirect kiss and like magic, you’ve become part of an already unsolvable problem.
It begins with a business trip taken by Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and we see her weave through a slew of sharp-suited businessmen in a swanky, upscale bar in Hong Kong. In the first of several shots that seem to satirize themselves later on, we’re given glimpses of dastardly bowls of beer nuts and the corrupt façade put forth by a seemingly innocent elevator button. As this unleaded paranoia fuel sets in, we’re given back-and-forth flashes of several other apparently infected characters as they go about their day, and die.
As Beth transports the deadly virus back home to Minneapolis and decides to have a quiet night with her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), she too succumbs to her illness and quickly ends up dead. (It’s not a spoiler if it takes place in the first 10 minutes of the movie.) Like clockwork, Mitch’s stepson bites it too, and soon he’s left as the film’s everyman who must protect the last shred of his family from a world about to go bonkers.
As people begin dropping like flies, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sends forth Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) — an epidemic Intelligence Service Officer — into the fray and she quickly becomes the one character who can basically be called the “hero” of this tangled web of subplots. As she labors over finding a cemented set of symptoms to the virus, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the Department of Homeland Security is sent on a trip to Hong Kong to gain more information and winds up in a fine mess to call her own. Evil-Man-From-The-Internet, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) makes a living as a muckraking blogger who’s hell-bent on proving the conspiracy that the government is in bed with pharmaceutical companies, and they’re out to make a pretty penny off the panic-stricken public in need of a good vaccination.
Poor Marion Cotillard's subplot doesn’t even go anywhere.
Hitchcock once mentioned that a thriller is only as strong as its main antagonist, and this rings ever true when your villain has taken the form of an invisible cloud of bacteria and the mass hysteria of a population with nowhere to turn. As subplots interweave, the one true story we follow is that of the virus, dubbed MEV-1, as it goes from a curious viral outbreak that claims a few lives to a full-on eradicator of worlds that causes the halt of modern civilization.
And despite its international flavor and terse but almost unnoticeable soundtrack, Contagion tells a very compassionate tale by raising some important questions. Consider the following: You work for the CDC and your wife is in a town that’s about to be quarantined, which will probably result in a superabundance of gangbangers prowling the streets, punctuated by the odd costumed vigilante. Do you calmly tell her to get out while she still can, thus taking advantage of your position, or do you be a professional-man-in-a-suit and collect your paycheck as the gangbangers get to bangin’? Hmm, what’s that? You say you’ll tell her to make like a tree and GTFO?
Alright, Sherlock, riddle me this: What with her innate, yet skewed sense of empathy, she’ll probably let her friends know about the how everyone’s going to be shut-off from everything, and BAM — widespread panic and a solid tea-bagging from the higher-ups who very clearly asserted that you not let any annoying emotions get the best of you. Now you’re down on your luck and addicted to drugs. Or something. Take this type of idea and mix it in a big jug with what other moral complications you can think of and you’ve got yourself one hell of a lesson in ethics that will leave you with an undeniable fear of doorknobs.
"I am Jude Law. I come from the Internet."
Which isn’t necessarily an exaggeration, because Contagion is the type of movie that works best in theaters because it shocks you into an awkward sort of self-consciousness. Suddenly, you’re alarmingly aware of the fact that you’re the umpteenth person sitting in your current seat parked in front of the big screen, sharing an enclosed room with a hundred or so people all in the same situation.
As you shove fistfuls of buttery, decadent popcorn into your mouth, you ponder back to every surface you’ve managed to touch in between the last time you washed your hands and this very moment.
If you had to take the bus, then God have mercy on your soul. A man to your left coughs, and you strain yourself, trying your best not to void your bowels.
The woman to your right clears her throat, and you see someone in the front row dash for the fire exit.
In one liminal moment, the popcorn that you share with your date becomes a hell of a lot more unappealing, as does the idea of leaving the house in general.
And like magic, film criticism jumps straight up to the rank above deep sea welding in the list of “worlds most dangerous jobs” — a thrilling venture, but a little too hazardous.
I wouldn’t necessarily call it an action thriller, but more of a drama thriller. Don’t let the flaccid appellation “drama” put you off, because Contagion hits hardest in its quiet moments. You’ll definitely be thrilled, and you’ll definitely wash your hands. Questions will bubble up in your head bones as the choices the characters make lead you into subconscious self-reflection. “What would I do if grandpa got infected? Push him down the stairs? Stay with him and risk infection to make his last moments fulfilling? Meh, probably not.
And what about the high rise in crime? Would I protect the weak, or join in on the looting and pillaging? A guy’s gotta eat after all… Maybe I’ll go to the pet shop and eat the hamsters.” Depending on your inclinations, this may lead you to questioning a few of the loose ends that failed to be tied up in the third act, but it’s not nearly enough to detract from the whole experience. By the closing credits, you could hear a pin drop in the theater on opening night.
Is a movie that advocates personal hygiene really all that bad? Not exactly. Unwarranted panic attacks — yes — but a healthy dose of caution — no. If you don’t look at it as the soapbox for writer Scott Z. Burns, Contagion is undeniably one of the better films out this season, and is definitely worth the watch. You’ll have a strange urge to shoot up with some disinfectant after a screening, and you may freak out the next time your son blows out the candles on his birthday cake — but don’t worry, these odd compulsions will pass with time.
- Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
- Year Released:
- 9 September 2011
- Steven Soderbergh
- Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tien You Chui, Josie Ho, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Griffin Kane, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law
- Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
- Official URL:
- Contagion (2011)