Films often have the ability to produce visceral responses from their viewers, especially if their subject matter is graphic and dangerously realistic. Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s gripping medical thriller, storms through a germ infested world that undoubtedly is an unpaid advertisement for the Purell business. By the time this sharp, piercing pandemic comes to its conclusion, subway poles, elevator buttons, and doorknobs will look like evil transmitters for a disease than the helpful devices they claim to be. Soderbergh interplays criticality of government and an impending “Lord of the Flies” mentality as the national to international epidemic wears on. An all too real depiction of a contagious crisis.
The first casualty belongs to Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who gambles at a Hong Kong casino with exuberance one day, and then lies, writhing on her Minneapolis home floor, foaming at the mouth the next. Her husband (a distressed and sensual Matt Damon) is bewildered, just like the whole world will become, and struggles to comprehend how a functioning human being just hours ago rapidly seizures to her death. What he doesn’t know is just how easily her sickness spreads, taking down anyone within the vicinity of a carrier’s shoulder brush, handshake, or cough. Like a middle-school rumor, it travels exponentially, latching onto anyone that made contact with Beth, whose layover flight landed in Chicago. The international catastrophe begins to take form and an ominous “Day 2” underlines the hospital room.
Soderbergh, with the writing help of Scott Z. Burns, and musical accomplice in Cliff Martinez, whose techno currents are strikingly similar to The Chemical Brothers, creates a rapid, fear-induced machination that bleeds its disease onto the screen. The camera gives us sickly clues, zooming in on the finger-touch ATM, the heavily gripped bus pole, all foreboding samples that spread germs and contribute to the growing presence of waifish figures. The director begins the film with a cacophony of coughs, unintentionally (but surely intentional on the director’s part) mimicked by audience members. Beth leans over the film lens pale and dazed, looking about ready to vomit on top of it, a haunting depiction many more are soon to face.
“Somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” says humble epidemiologist Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who in the chaos of the pandemic is working tirelessly along with her partner David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin) to find a usable vaccine, subsequently ending monkey’s lives with each test. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne), the deputy director at the Center for Disease Control is shed into the public light as he waits patiently for the test results. He sends an intrepid Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) into the field to study and analyze the rocketing rate of dead and sick in which she must be conscious of her every encounter. Other medical members viciously aiming for a cure and information include Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an examiner for the World Health Organization, whose reason blinds her ability to see a devious plot. Dr. Ian Sussman is played by Soderbergh’s Danny Ocean accomplice Elliot Gould, who adds some spice and another opinion about the virus.
The mischievous maverick within this mess is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) a notorious blogger that sees the pandemic as a governmental conspiracy, aimed at giving power to pharmacies and attempting to gain from their large profit. The idea seems inspired by a V for Vendetta like plot and his internet backing of 12 million is enough to make the San Francisco native a potent threat to the majority’s acceptance of a new vaccine. He writes on his blog called Truth Serum Now that the medicine Forsythia, a chinese drug, can cure the disease. Krumwiede, who claims that “Print Media is Dying” doesn’t need all the facts to promote fear, just a controversial opinion and an enemy that looks more dishonorable with every new case. Dr. Sussman in an attempt to wield off the itchy writer yells, “Blogging isn’t writing! It’s graffiti with punctuation!” But Soderbergh demonstrates that many times graffiti is a more attractive art form, and an easier route to shift guilt.
While the film doesn’t go as deep as the virus does wide, it still creates an eclectic mix of scientific examination and emotion-filled decisions that form its unsanitary core. The disease spans 135 days and in the process strains relationships and the chemical balance of rational thinking and passionate instinct. Soderbergh takes the science seriously and hauntingly shares, between frantic looting and pharmaceutical break-ins, the awry silence out of city’s hotspots. Empty airports, vandalized supermarkets, germ infested office-buildings all chillingly spell the speed of sickness and fear of its metropolitan inhabitants. Dr. Hextall and Eisenberg wear suits like those doctors in Spielberg’s E.T., isolating themselves while mixing compounds as outside fevers boil past 100 and blurred images enhance our sympathetic understanding.
Through a self-righteous blogger and a deputy that toys with nepotism, Contagion briskly shares a taste of human fallibility that comes with worldwide panic. The unknown produces fear, and Soderbergh capitalizes on the raw impulses of personal interest and serving the common good. It leaves a sense of moral ambiguity and a sudden desire to wash one’s hands.