Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard.
A new, deadly virus goes global – seen from the perspectives of the common man to workers at the World Health Organisation.
The world population officially reached seven billion people last week. Well, it might have actually been as early as March or as late as sometime next January, but it’s the idea that counts. There are a lot of us.
It’s something Contagion plays on during its opening scenes. The film is littered with numbers throughout – standard ominous ones like ‘Day 7’ and the length of incubation periods – but it is the first few shots, opening on various capital cities across the globe, that do it best.
LONDON. POPULATION: 8 MILLION.
BEIJING. POPULATION: 20 MILLION.
DARTFORD. POPULATION: 86 THOUSAND.
These are enormous numbers to be crammed into their relative environments. Infectious diseases thrive in such conditions, leaving harmful traces on anything and anyone that comes into contact with them. The film’s focus on people touching objects – stair rails, wine glasses, bus seats – instils a suspicion of your surrounding surfaces in you, and is something that takes a good few hours after leaving the cinema to wear off.
Contagion opens on ‘Day 2’, with an under-the-weather-looking Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) sipping at a coffee in an airport lounge. This is the other great fear into which the film taps. Such densely populated areas allow for the quick spreading of disease within that city. A world so interconnected with airplanes provides a framework that infectious diseases have never enjoyed before. However, the end credits of Rise of the Planet of the Apes portrayed this far more effectively than all 106 minutes of Contagion. And it had considerably more Andy Serkis.
SPOILER START. Well, kind of. Beth dies within the opening five minutes. Killing off big name stars is a great trick and it makes you genuinely fear for the other characters’ wellbeing. As Paltrow contorts and froths towards death, Matt Damon, Jude Law and Kate Winslet don’t look so invincible. SPOILER END.
Beth was travelling home from Hong Kong. Later on, the film implies that she was either Patient Zero (the first person to be affected by the virus), or at least very close to him or her. Nevertheless, the virus starts in China. It could have been another country, but it plays into America’s fears more this way. There’s never a hint that the cure will be discovered in anywhere but America, off the back of good ol’ American ingenuity, so it appeals to their dreams too.
Damon is Beth’s husband, Mitch. He really is a phenomenal actor. He wears a crappy moustache and his hair unkempt. Apart from looking like Matt Damon, he could easily pass for a normal guy. He rejects vanity for his character, and has the film’s most genuinely affecting moments because of it. Everyone else, although good, lend themselves more towards pandemic-movie-cliché.
And there is a lot of ‘everyone else’. Contagion’s aim is to show the effects of a global pandemic, and as a result, spreads itself across characters and continents, perhaps a little too thinly. The ensemble cast, therefore, is as huge as the names within it. Along with the aforementioned A-listers, there is also Marion Cotillard (who might be the prettiest person on the planet, sans crazy Inception eyes) as a World Health Organisation epidemiologist, looking for the cause of the virus in Hong Kong; Laurence Fishburne as a doctor for America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, who deals with the press; Bryan Cranston as a military man wary that the virus might be a bioweapon. It’s all a tad exhausting.
Some narratives are interesting - Fishburne’s in particular. He tells a loved one to skip town because of ensuing curfews. This finds its way to Jude Law’s paranoid blog, and then into the wider press. Why, they ask, is a Government official allowed to warn his family and friends of the virus, when the public are left to fend for themselves? It’s a fair point, or rather, a point of fairness, but Fishburne’s reasoning is handled with great care. If he could go back, he’d do it all again. Anyone would to protect those close to them.
Other subplots drag. Cotillard, although very pretty, is ignored for the entire mid-section of the film, and then made the centrepiece for its final third. That we’re expected to care is either complacency on the filmmaker’s part, or simple condescension.
The stories rarely connect physically. Not that they have to (see: Babel), but Soderbergh isn’t Iñárritu, and the script isn’t poignant enough to cover for the lack of sub-plot interaction. Cutting several of the narrative threads would have benefited the film.
The film does explore the nature of spreading quite acutely. Early on, in one of those briefing scenes to explain the threat in overly scientific language, only to then repeat it in layman’s terms (“But what does that mean!?” “This is a threat the like of which we’ve never encountered before” - Dum! Dum! Dumb!), the term R-0 is encountered. This signifies the number of people who will be affected by one infected. A value of R-3, for instance, means that on average, one contagious person infects three others.
It’s a cool bit of lingo – it sounds official – but is not limited to analysing the virus. The tagline ‘Nothing Spreads Like Fear’ adorns the film’s poster, and this is conveyed in the public’s panic when the virus is first announced. As things get more desperate, they make a carnal rush for supplies of food, water and fuel. The way in which the Internet escalates this is also highlighted through Jude Law’s sensationalist blog. Hollywood seems to treat the Internet in a similar manner to how it portrayed television in the 50s – a threat. Law’s inconsistent South-African accent, fake tooth and exploitative nature personify a few of the Internet’s ugliest traits.
Contagion is standard fare, which has a very adept ensemble cast. In five years time, they’ll be another global-spanning, virus outbreak film that’ll look a lot like it, and be called something scary like ‘Pandemic’ or ‘Seasonal Flu’. There are ways around it. Put it on a diet and constrain the story to a single house like Right at Your Door. It’s a shame stuff like that doesn’t draw.
365 Days, 100 Films