What if a deadly virus ripped through the world, shattering cities and killing millions, but you had the chance to view the carnage from sealed government labs and well-appointed boardrooms? That's the promise of Contagion, a fascinating plague procedural from Steven Soderbergh, where more tension radiates from powerpoint presentations about viral amplification than it does from a shot of mass graves.
Contagion is basically an inside-out version of terrifying zombie plague movie 28 Days Later. In the latter, which is a more typical viral apocalypse flick, we watch victims abandoned by the world, trying to cope with a civilization that has completely degenerated into horror. In Contagion, we follow suits and scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization as they try to solve the mystery of a disease that's killing the world. It's probably no surprise that director Soderbergh has given us a movie about disease politics, a thought experiment where mass epidemic becomes an occasion to stage a conflict between federal agencies, privately-funded biotech companies, and corrupt media fearmongers.
Light spoilers ahead.
Like Soderbergh's classic films Traffic and Ocean's 11, Contagion features an ensemble cast of standout actors, from the mesmerizing Jennifer Ehle as an intense CDC scientist to Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as a paranoid Public Health Service honcho. Unlike characters in Soderbergh's other films, though, the people in Contagion rarely come together and are united by nothing but the disease itself. Filmed in a montage-heavy style that seems to emulate the spread of the disease across many places simultaneously, Contagion begins with Gwyneth Paltrow starting to cough in an airport bar as she talks on her mobile with a guy she just hooked up with - inadvertently seeding the virus in Chicago on her way home to her husband (Matt Damon) and kids in Minnesota.
As she sickens and dies, we blink our way through montages that take us gradually closer to the characters who occupy the center of the story: The scientists and bureaucrats of the CDC and the WHO, and their sterile, lab's-eye-view of the situation as it goes from dozens of deaths to millions. As head of the CDC, Laurence Fishburne turns in a grave-but-warm performance, and Kate Winslet is perhaps one of the most sympathetic characters as an epidemiological investigator for the CDC who dies tracking the disease whose origins she helps to uncover. It's only when we follow Winslet's character, and to a certain extent Damon's, that we ever see the human cost of the virus that's eating its way through every country in the world.
Soderbergh's camera seems to shy away from carnage, and we only see curiously quiet, well-run overflow care centers in sports stadiums, flanked by mass graves so tidy that they arouse sadness but not anxiety. We watch some looting go on in the neighborhood where Damon's character lives with his one surviving daughter, but it seems curiously distant. It helps that everyone we're following is either in a sterile lab environment, a protected government facility, or simply immune to the disease as Damon's character is.
Obviously this was a conscious choice on Soderbergh's part, to neglect the clichés of carnage to emphasize the big picture only glimpsed by high-up decision-makers in a time of crisis. Doing this allows him to tell stories you rarely see depicted outside of novels like Mira Grant's acclaimed Feed, which is as much about media response to epidemic as it is the disease itself. While truth-telling bloggers emerge as heroes in Grant's novel, however, Contagion paints them as scare-mongering vampires. Indeed, the worst menace in Contagion is not the virus but Jude Law's blogger Alan, a snaggle-toothed, fame-obsessed creep who seems loosely based on TechCrunch's Michael Arrington. Like Arrington, Alan is using his considerable online following to push a product he's secretly invested in — in this case, a homeopathic remedy that he claims can cure the virus. Claiming the rapacious pharmaceutical companies are in league with the government to cover up cheap cures, Alan posts a video where he pretends to be cured by the remedy. The most horrific scene of mob violence we get in Contagion is when people smash the windows of a pharmacy to get the last remaining doses of this remedy, after reading Alan's blog.
It seems that a malicious meme is more deadly than a biological virus.
While this is an interesting point, it's also connected to one of the weakest aspects of Contagion. Though Soderbergh gives us a raw glimpse of the corruption in media, he shies away from ever questioning the motivations of his science heroes. The idea that pharmaceutical companies will make billions off the vaccine for this virus — a perfectly reasonable claim that Alan makes on his blog — is glossed over entirely. Indeed, in all the minute details of bureaucratic disease tracking we see, pharmaceutical companies and their executives never once walk onscreen. The single glimpse we get of a privately-funded scientist comes when a concerned-looking Eliot Gould risks his life — and career — by continuing to work on cracking the viral code that the government has deemed too hot to handle outside the CDC. In a movie devoted to complexity, this seems like an awfully simplistic way to dismiss what would likely be the single biggest issue treating a global epidemic: Who funds, manufactures, and distributes the vaccine?
Perhaps this will sound odd to say, but hyperrealism has its own brand of plothole, and Contagion's biggest one is the role that private industry would play in this disease outbreak scenario. This blindness stands in stark contrast to the nuanced, ambiguous resolution of the film, when we finally learn how the virus got started. Blame for it — if we can really place blame for indifferent evolution — falls on a complicated web of corporate interests, international relationships, and human error.
Despite its flaws, the movie remains an interesting thought experiment, and a weirdly reassuring look at how our scientific institutions would respond to a health crisis of epic proportions. Contagion suffers from an occasionally sterile perspective on what should be an emotionally harrowing experience, but it's refreshing to see what happens when you turn a horror movie premise into something that feels like a good episode of The West Wing.