Contagion examines what happens in the days following a worldwide lethal pandemic. It shows how society reacts to the outbreak of a virus and how it affects, on a micro level, people at varying degrees of relevance to the virus.
Making reference to the recent real-life outbreaks of bird flu and h1n1, the unnamed virus begins in Hong Kong and gets transmitted around the world, killing sufferers within days of infection. Major organisations get called into action and we see how varying motives drive the individuals working for each group, as well as the different challenges they face. Ultimately, a vaccine is developed, but not before chaos has ensued for several months in a world that has gone mad from infection and the fear of it. It is revealed that the disease originated from a bat, having been passed to humans via a slaughtered pig. But by then, this is anti-climactic information that we already knew, or didn’t care about.
What is important to me about Contagion is its exploration of human society. Responsibilities are abandoned by almost every featured character in some way, from scientists selflessly defying protocol in their search for a vaccine to people on the streets selfishly rioting and looting shops and houses to survive. It is interesting to see how each character becomes his own anti-hero; the two most notable examples being Laurence Fishburne‘s Dr Cheever discreetly tipping off his fiancee to leave a city before it gets quarantined (which ends up working against his credibility despite his best intentions), and the epidemiologist Sun Feng (played by Chin Han) who resorts to kidnapping his colleague in a bid to secure a quick vaccination for the remnants of his village. In fact, the only true villain of this film could be an internet blogger (Jude Law) who influences masses by openly criticising the government’s prolonged attempts at a vaccine and making false claims about an alternative cure after being paid to do so. It could be said that Contagion refers not just to the spread of disease, but the way humans instinctively react to each other upon information and misinformation during crises.
Social commentary aside, Contagion is a useful case study into what is essentially a normal pandemic (if pandemics can be considered normal), and what we should or shouldn’t be doing about one. Definitely worth a watch.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Producers: Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher & Gregory Jacobs
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet