Steven Soderbergh is a director known for being able to take multiple storylines and bring them all together under the umbrella of some great story arc. The characters in each storyline may never meet, but they are all a part of something bigger than their small lives. Contagion is one such film.
Contagion begins with mother and wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) nursing what seems to be a cold in an airport, on her way home from business in Hong Kong. Once home, she falls ill with something akin to the flu. A day later, she’s dead and the doctors are left scratching their heads.
Enter the CDC. Beth was not an isolated case and other similar deaths are occurring across the world. The death toll is fairly small at this point, but it is soon realized that the cause of the deaths is something that is highly contagious and is spread by touch. Touch someone infected, get the virus. Touch something an infected person touch, get the virus.
According to Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), the average person touches their face 3-5 times within a single minute. When people are not touching their faces, they’re touching other people and things. In fact, we’re shown in this film that our entire existence is, more or less, based on touching. And when a virus is spread by something this simple, it spreads quickly.
Soon enough, the numbers of people dying from this unknown virus are multiplying rapidly. Cities are being quarantined and lives are being disrupted. Looting and rioting begins as city streets become deserted and panic begins to assert itself at pharmacies and hospitals.
Sure, Contagion might sport an all-start cast that also includes Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard, but what really makes the film unique is the realistic portrayal of how viruses are tracked, as well as how hard it can be to come up with a vaccine and get it out there to the public. Add in the conspiracy theorists and general human nature, and it’s a wonder that the CDC can do their job at all.
Of the entire cast, Matt Damon’s performance stood out the most. Although the entire cast is fantastic, there is something so beautifully understated about Damon’s portrayal of a man who has lost both a wife and stepson to the virus. And by the end of the film, when he finally allows himself to grieve, his pain feels genuine and not forced.
The CDC could show this film to the public as an example of how the process works when it comes to tracking viruses and eventually developing and distributing vaccines. It’s not as easy as it sounds, nor as boring. In fact, if this film is any indicator, it’s actually quite fascinating. I can’t say I understood a lot of the science of the film, but it was extremely interesting to see how viruses are examined and tested.
Contagion is not one of those over-the-top plague sort of films that Hollywood has given us previously. It is a subtle film about something that could actually happen, and has actually happened in the past (remember H1N1?). Everything in Contagion is utterly believable, which makes it all that much scarier.
So watch this film and be sure to wash your hands regularly. And don’t talk to anyone. And don’t touch anyone either.