I’m writing this entry on September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the worst attack on American soil in this nation’s history. In the decade since that unforeseen tragedy, millions of American people grew afraid. Not only was there immense paranoia about foreign threats, but there were claims that the U.S. government had manufactured the attacks to serve their own agenda. Of course, our leaders didn’t give us too many reasons to have faith in them, using 9/11 as a fearmongering tactic and an all-purpose talking point during the 2004 election, not to mention an excuse for stringent airport security and a little thing called the Patriot Act. With no one to trust, we stocked up on Cipro and sealed our houses in duct tape, as if that would help anything. And now, ten years on, the scars left by 9/11 are still visible, and we remain as divided and afraid as ever.
But of course, I’m sure all of this had nothing to do with the release date for today’s movie, or why I picked today to see it.
Contagion is a movie with a simple premise: There’s a global epidemic, people are dying by the millions, and the world’s greatest minds struggle around the clock to find a cure. In this case, the virus causes flu-like symptoms, which makes it that much more difficult to spot at first. Even worse is that it’s quickly and easily contracted, spreading through skin contact with infected persons or items that infected people have touched.
Let’s start with the obvious question: What’s the message? After all, this is a Participant Media flick, so there has to be some kind of socio-political message in here somewhere. Based on all the talk about contagious diseases throughout history and several diseases on record we know nothing about, I’d say that this movie was meant to be a reminder that humans aren’t really as high on the food chain as we’d like to believe. But I’m guessing that came from director Steven Soderbergh or writer Scott Z. Burns, since that theme doesn’t really seem like Participant’s bag.
No, I’m guessing that Participant had a lot more to do with the “paranoia” aspect. In particular, Jude Law’s character is a blogger who seems convinced that the CDC is burying potential cures and vaccines to appease the pharmaceutical companies, and that seems much more like something Participant would be interested in portraying. The movie also depicts rioting and emergency workers’ strikes, raising the question of when a disaster becomes so huge that people have to look out for themselves before they start helping others. What’s more, I’m sure Participant loved the bits about how FDA regulations and ethical scientific protocols are woefully inadequate to handle a full-scale epidemic.
This brings me to one of the movie’s great strengths: Accuracy. It’s clearly obvious that those behind the scenes put an incalculably huge amount of effort into making sure that every reaction to the outbreak felt authentic. Even the scientific babble about the virus’ cell receptors and genetic markers sounded plausible by what education in bioscience I have (Reminder: I hold a Bachelor’s in Bioinformatics. Granted, it only qualified me to rant on the Internet about movies, but I digress). So much of the movie depends on its authenticity, providing the illusion that if this hypothetical doomsday scenario really did come true, this is more or less what would actually happen. This illusion is rock-solid for the most part, though that only serves to make the lapses in authenticity so much more obvious and painful.
By my count, this movie contained five noteworthy lapses in scientific accuracy. Two of them were huge breakthroughs that came about entirely through breaking laws and scientific ethics. In the best case scenario, these actions would have ruined the reputations and careers of all involved. In the worst case scenario, they’d be proven wrong, killing themselves and millions of others in the process. However, I’m willing to let these slide on the grounds that if this movie is going to be over in less than two hours, some drastic measures had to be taken so that miraculous discoveries could be made to speed things along. They’re creative liberties for the sake of telling the story in this chosen medium, and I can accept that.
The other three lapses, however, were done purely out of stupidity. One of them involves a patient who proves early on to be immune, and the CDC just lets him go. They don’t keep tabs on him, they don’t put him in a secure location, they just send him back out into the wild. I can almost let this slide on the grounds that they did take samples from him, and there was a passing line of dialogue explaining that finding some genetic reason for the immunity could take a long time, but that plot point deserved a lot more attention and explanation than it got.
Then there are the other two, both of which belong to Kate Winslet’s character. Dr. Erin Mears is a CDC official who got sent out to investigate the life and times of Patient Zero, particularly in her last few hours alive. She learns about a co-worker who came into contact with Patient Zero, who is showing symptoms and is on a bus. At this point, anyone with half a brain would have told the authorities to stop that bus and put it under quarantine.
Instead, Erin tells the poor guy to get off the bus immediately, thus contaminating everyone who happens to be around him when he gets off. And meanwhile, no effort is made to detain the bus or to keep the other passengers from spreading the virus. EPIC FAIL.
Last but not least, Erin spends her work trip in a hotel room. A hotel room. She’s there at Ground fucking Zero, investigating the cause of a highly contagious disease that’s already killed thousands, and she’s sleeping in a hotel room that’s been serviced by total strangers and occupied by who knows how many people, any of whom could have carried the disease. She even orders room service, for God’s sake! I don’t know about you folks, but personally, I’d think that sleeping in a rental car might have been the smarter and more obvious option.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that Erin is just one character among dozens in this film, and Kate Winslet is just one part of this movie’s lengthy all-star cast. She shares the film with such heavyweights as Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and John Hawkes (Demetri Martin also has a role, for some strange reason). Unfortunately, a cast of this size and caliber means that the screen time is inevitably going to be spread thin. As such, though all of them do a superb job with what they’re given, none of these actors really have the room or the leeway to really give a stand-out performance. On the other hand, this strong casting avoids a much bigger problem: When a movie has so many characters in so many subplots, the only way to make them remotely distinguishable or memorable is to cast the shit out of them.
And the issue of subplots brings me to what has to be this movie’s greatest strength: Its scale. From start to finish, Soderbergh does a superlative job of depicting a global epidemic that truly feels global. The film is absolutely beautiful in how it portrays the outbreak’s quiet beginnings, the mass deaths, and the social upheavals, all on an international scale. A lot of that is due to the variety and the pacing of all the various subplots, which examine the crisis in multiple locations and from several points of view.
However, though the film does generally do a good job of juggling the various subplots and keeping any of them from overpowering the others for too long, it was inevitable that a few storylines would get mismanaged. John Hawkes’ storyline is the obvious example, since his character never really does anything and his arc is resolved in such a way that I was left wondering what got left on the cutting room floor. Marion Cotillard’s character is another prime example, since her subplot ends on a goddamn cliffhanger!
Last but not least, there’s the fact that a movie with so many stories has so many stories that need resolutions. As such, this is unfortunately one of “those” movies, the kind that keeps ending and ending and ending. I actually respect this to a degree, since the aftermath of the outbreak has as much drama as any other phase of the process, and there’s a lot of comfort to be found in so much closure. However, this movie still misses the landing by a hair, since it takes the ending one step too far.
In the very last scene of the movie, we flash back to the very beginning and see exactly how the outbreak started and the virus came to be. I have absolutely no idea why the filmmakers did this. It doesn’t tell us anything about the virus that we didn’t already know, it doesn’t nullify all the work that was done to cure it, and those responsible for spreading it are all dead, so what’s the point?
When all is said and done, I think that Contagion is more than worthy of a recommendation. Yes, there are a few hiccups in terms of pacing and plotting, but this movie does so many big things right for every little thing that it gets wrong. The global scale is wonderfully presented, the scientific accuracy is remarkable overall, the cast is bulletproof, and the various moral dilemmas are nicely delivered. This may be an overwhelmingly bleak movie, but it’s still a fascinating mirror held up to modern-day society. Definitely worth a look.