Film (2011). Warner Bros, Participant, Imagenation Abu Dhabi. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z Burns. Cast includes Tien You Chui, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, Griffin Kane, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet. 106 minutes. Colour.
Contagion is a fiction film depicting the stunningly rapid spread across the planet of a coronavirus that has originated in a single infected pig butchered in a remote rural region of China, where ongoing deforestation and other hints of Pollution make it clear that here as elsewhere Homo sapiens is exploiting its home to the point of species death. Within days of its initial transmission by a jetset executive for the American firm involved, what is soon called MEV-1 has begun to decimate the world's population. Eventually a vaccine is developed, but the world has changed. The film tanked in 2011.
Viewers ten years later – sales of Contagion increased hugely in early 2020 – will not have wasted their investment. The parallels between MEV-1 and COVID-19, which are numerous enough to seem almost uncanny, bring a prickle to the back of the neck. There are of course differences, almost certainly due to commercial pressures to focus on name actors and melodramatize the action: MEV-1 is even more easily transmissible than COVID-19, symptoms show within hours, and are usually fatal. A vaccine is developed after a month (!), though its proper distribution does not begin properly for another 100 days (which are passed off camera), at which point some recognizable faces in the cast (some of whom at least worked for free) are allowed a modicum of uplift-closure (it may be assumed that American funding of the film included a requirement that family values be heavily foregrounded at this point: numbingly, they are). Wise viewers should, however, be able to divert their attention from the grosser studio simplistics, while all the same clocking underlying truths. It should be possible for instance to sidebar the inevitable indignation aroused when post-9/11 Homeland-Security-style Realpolitik-"savvy" honchos headed by Lyle Haggerty (Cranston) are seen busily fulfilling their mission to scapegoat genuine Scientists (while noting similar outsourcings of blame in the world of COVID-19). Stock footage of looted shopping malls also seems to come straight from Hollywood's aspiration to channel the spiritus mundi.
But the power and gravitas and flow of Contagion easily rinse out these occasional surrenders to blare. Its fundamentally sober prolepsis of the dramaturgic of pandemic growth (see Disaster; Medicine), and of the correspondingly intense search for a vaccine, is never hyperventilated with Pseudoscience, a modesty of telling made more terrifying through its eschewal of CGI. The rendering of government responses across the world – no heads-of-state are filmed, reducing the need for Satire – similarly lacks melodrama, except when insisted upon by the money, and conveys with some realism the nearly insuperable collapse of normal governance generated by a real pandemic. Towards the end, an intergovernmental decision to kill a village full of children, because their vaccine was illegally acquired, does unwisely shift the telling into the Cliches of Dystopia, though only briefly. There are in fact almost no Villains at all. The only genuine example is Alan Krumwiede (Law), an Internet scammer who persuades his millions of alt-fact followers (see Media Landscape) to buy a completely useless and possibly harmful homeopathic "cure" for the plague called forsythia, in which he has a financial interest. When he is exposed, his profits increase.
Contagion, filmed around 2010, is set in the extremely Near Future specious present that Technothrillers normally inhabit but never date: somewhere at the far limits of what history and Technology may be capable of without undue fantastication. In this case, with Imaginary Science strictly avoided, an extensive use of documentary-style sequences seems far more verisimilitudinous than usual; snippets of fake found-footage are also swallowable. The use of A-list actors – Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet – is only disruptive when their extradiegetic noumen is initially encountered; but they do not act like stars, and are soon submerged into the narrative flow, with only Damon in his Everyman guise given much protagony.
Much is told, little time wasted. The first twenty-nine days of the pandemic are structured into thirteen continuous sections, each presented sequentially, with the exception of Day 1, which serves as epilogue, and shows Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) being infected by the pig. In Day 2, en route home to Minnesota from China via a short stopover in Chicago to sleep with an ex-boyfriend and potential vector (Soderbergh, voice only), she coughs repeatedly on the plane. She greets her husband Mitch Emhoff (Damon) and their young son Clark (Kane), hugging them both. The Days pass with toxic speed. By Day 4 she is dead of a seizure; her son dies; Mitch is immune. Brief flashes of her role as Patient Zero and his as Everyman continue to serve as punctuation points. Meanwhile, Dr Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention attempts to organize America's response, aided by Dr Erin Mears (Winslet) from Day 6, but she falls ill on Day 14 and dies on Day 18. A rogue scientist, Dr Ian Sussman (Gould), defies protocol on Day 8 and creates a stable culture in which to grow the virus by Day 12, clearing the way on Day 29 for Dr Ally Hextall (Ehle) – it is Contagion's closest approach to Hollywood plotting – to illegally inject herself with a potentially successful but untried vaccine, at a point when 26,000,000 are already dead. One hundred days pass. Hextall has not died. The final three days – 131, 133 and 135 – focus on the distribution by lottery of initially limited supplies of the successful vaccine. After an unstated number of additional deaths (hundreds of millions, presumably) the world begins to turn to a new Day 136, which is not named nor do we witness it. As far as the language used in this encyclopedia goes, a full-scale Holocaust has been very narrowly averted; we are not entering a Post-Holocaust era.
But Contagion, which is a fiction film, does not come with a guarantee. [JC]