In the 14th century, bubonic plague killed an estimated 75 million people, including, perhaps half the population of Europe. Historians calculate that roughly the same number were killed by the Spanish influenza in 1918 — 5 to 6% of the world's population at that time. Several films have speculated on what would happen worldwide if another supervirus broke out; they range from 1971's The Andromeda Strain andOmega Man to 1995's 12 Monkeys and Outbreak — and this summer's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion. That last movie opened this weekend.
Surprisingly, given the familiarity of the theme,Contagion is a compelling film. Its calm, subdued tone, almost documentary in style, creates a growing sense of tension and authenticity that is somehow more riveting than the hysteria evoked by other films. Here, a character reacts in an unflustered, uncomprehending way to the news that his wife has died; his lack of emotion shows his unwillingness to process the horrifying information. The scene is profoundly moving — more poignant than if he had broken down in tears.
Contagion follows several plot lines, as health workers from the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet), WHO (Marion Cotillard), and private industry (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle) try to trace the disease back to its original human host, contain its spread, and devise a vaccine. Director Steven Soderbergh deftly demonstrates how quickly we can be exposed to disease as we go about our daily lives, touching objects that others have touched. If you weren't a germaphobe before, you are likely to become one after seeing this film.
The film's title refers, of course, to the contagion of disease, but it offers multiple layers of additional meaning. We see how fear, rumor, and warnings can also be contagious, passing quickly from one person to another in an exponentially widening circle.
Meanwhile, we see the breakdown of normal distribution chains as people stop going to work, either from sickness or fear of sickness, and others are unable to purchase necessary supplies, such as food and medicine. Interesting moral problems arise as well.Situation ethicists often use the survival scenario to justify stealing. Ordinary people do also: when pondering whether a person should die in a snowstorm rather than break into a privately owned but unoccupied cabin, most would argue that it is all right to break the law in order to save one's life. But what if thousands of people are faced with starvation at the same time?
In this film, looting erupts as people become desperate — but that is not presented as an acceptable solution. Nor is the government's welfare solution — distributing food and medicine "fairly" — presented as working well, especially when there isn’t enough for everyone. In fact, if the film suggests anything, it is that people should prepare for disaster relief themselves, by stocking up in advance on food, medicines, bottled water, and yes, guns, for a self-imposed quarantine. I found this call for self-reliance refreshing in a Hollywood film.
It was also refreshing to see the pharmaceutical companies portrayed as good guys for once, as people working around the clock and taking personal risks to discover a vaccine. Yes, there are the usual barbs about profiteering, but the film acknowledges that everyone, not just the corporate bigwig, is strongly motivated to earn money, and that this is not such a bad way to control the distribution of goods. The alternatives — looting, or lining up for insufficient handouts from the government — are shown as leading to chaos.
Contagion is a fascinating, gripping thriller. The story is believable, and the acting is superb. But let me warn you: you will probably feel compelled to stop on the way home for a few gallons of bottled water and several cases of canned tuna and ramen noodles. And don't forget the plastic gloves — you won't want to be touching anything for a while . . .