After seeing Contagion today, I thought long and hard about the peanuts sitting in a bowl on the bar next to my drink. This new film directed by Steven Soderbergh, and written by Scott Z. Burns is described as an action thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly virus and a team of doctors contracted by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to deal with the outbreak. If you think that this film might remind you of the 1995 film called Outbreakwith Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Renee Russo, and Morgan Freeman – you’d be correct.
I think the term action thriller is a little misleading. There’s not really a lot of action and it isn’t really a thrill ride either. What it really is a horror story that could become true tomorrow or at any other time in the future. Only in this horror story, the monsters aren’t visible.
In fact, there already have been plagues, and diseases that have spread rapidly. The horror is that it can come at any time, and in anyplace on the globe. That is what is so frightening.
The film tells us that an average person touches their own face 2 or 3 times a minute all day. That’s 2-3 thousand times a day. Every day. The film tells us that every day contacts with other people like shaking hands, picking up a glass, handling a door knob, or a pole on a subway train or a bus, or even handing someone a file, or money, or a credit card then receiving it back might result in the transmittal of a disease.
The film opens at Day 2. Someone we know (the actress – not the character) has contracted the disease. She’s unaware – but we know. Part of the reason is that this film’s title is Contagion, and she looks and acts sick, and the other reason we know is that the blasted trailer told us as much. This is Beth Emhoff played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Within a few minutes of film time, she’s weakened, collapsed, rushed to a hospital, then dies.
The film back tracks and shows us some of what happened to her in Macau,which is an hour west of Hong Kong via a hydrofoil, first in a bar, then a casino, and finally on the flight home, etc.
Her husband Mitch Emhoff is played by Matt Damon. Beth’s death is so unexpected and so out of the blue to him, that when he’s told that she’s died, and that they couldn’t save her, his first comments are Okay. When can I see her. Can I talk to her? In short the news of her passing doesn’t even register. A few days later Beth’s son dies.
From this scary beginning, the news only gets worse. There are deaths in Hong Kong, London, Japan, etc. There’s no knowledge about the virus, or what it is , or where it started. Of course there’s no cure either.
The CDC, and the World Health Organization (WHO) swing into action. Laurence Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever with ample gravitas. Some have said he’s too laid back. I say, as an Executive Director in the CDC, he can’t panic, or seem to be at loose ends. He’s got to be a rock.
He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears played by Kate Winslet to head up to the Minneapolis suburbs where the Emhoff’s lived to try to get a handle on what’s going on. The WHO dispatches Dr. Leonora Orantes, played by Marion Cotillard, to Hong Kong on a similar venture. Days tick by. Day 5, Day 12, Day 17. What began as a few isolated cases increases exponentially with each passing day. Death tolls rise all over the world. The numbers reach into the millions. Panic and chaos mount. Poor Mitch Emhoff and his surviving daughter are not even permitted to cross a state line to go from Minnesota into Wisconsin.
As I said this is a horror story. But that’s all I will say about the story that unfolds on screen.
So let’s now have a look at the film’s structure. Multiple story lines or settings, and about a dozen or so well known, and even award winning actors, and actresses have roles. No one is particularly heroic although many are very brave.
The story moves along. As I said this isn’t really a thriller, but there is lots of tension. You really can’t take your eyes off the screen. It is not so much that you get attached to one character or another. They come and they go, some live and others die. But what is gripping is that we are all involved in this. This isn’t just an outbreak of Ebola in an isolated African country. This isn’t even SARS which began in Guangdong Province in China and quickly spread to Hong Kong and then on to many other countries around the globe quite quickly. The SARS outbreak was real and it was in 2003.
I was in Hong Kong in 2003.
Contagion is set in the present. The first victim (Paltrow) catches it just before flying home to Minneapolis via Chicago. Her flight originated in Hong Kong.
Because of the fact that we have to keep so many characters afloat mentally, we don’t get an attachment to any of them. Some have said this is a flawed movie because of just this factor. In my view – this keeps the melodramatics out of the film. It doesn’t play like a drama with back stories, and lots of exposition. You just get caught up in it and are carried along.
Some time is spent in the film where some things are brought into play. Is there a conspiracy? Are we the victims of the big Pharmaceutical outfits who create a disease so they can reap the rewards on delivery of the curing vaccines. Will such agencies as the CDC, FEMA, WHO, and even Homeland Security give us the facts. And what about the fear mongers in the media and on the internet. Can they be believed or are some them even involved in the profiteering stemming from the production of the serums or even the natural or organic medicines. In this film the bad guy is a blogger called Alan Krumwiede and he’s played by Jude Law. Krumwiede thinks of himself a s a journalist. Others say his work is just typing with punctuation. Still folks believe him. He’s only too eager to tell all that his website got 2 million unique visitors just the other day.
The reality is that all of the above can or might happen. None of us are safe. Who will get the vaccines first? The questions mount and the answers are not really offered.
I think this film shall do quite well and might even garner some award nominations. At the end of the film, we get to see how this particular strain of a virus came about. The actual Day 1.
One more thing – I’ll be in Hong Kong and Southwest China in 7 weeks.
Link to my website: The Arts