By curious coincidence I ended up seeing Contagion only hours after receiving a free flu shot at work; when I commented to my co-worker that I was getting the shot, she was concerned on my behalf. “Don’t those things make you sick?” she asked me. She herself said she wasn’t willing to “risk” the vaccine; but didn’t seem to think there was any possible risk in not being vaccinated.
This type of attitude plays a crucial part in Steven Soderbergh’s film. Contagion is a cold, precise, unsentimental look at the likely consequences if and when the next great global pandemic of a killer disease should occur. In today’s globalized society a virus could easily travel the world in days and as the bodies pile up terror and panic would overwhelm lawful society. There’s a certain brutality to it all.
We begin on Day 2 seeing an adulterous businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) coming down with what looks like just a cold, and then flash to other people in Hong Kong, Japan, and London showing symptoms. (It’s only later we learn what linked these individuals and only in the film’s final moments that we learn the initial cause of the outbreak). Within the first few minutes, both Paltrow’s businesswoman and her son are both dead, and we later get treated to an autopsy scene of her corpse that is all the more disturbing for its clinical detachment.
There’s no mercy on anyone; the brave doctor from the CDC (the always fabulous Kate Winslet), becomes another casualty dying piteously in the same massive quarantine center she helped set up and is buried in a mass grave where they’ve run out of body bags. Even when help does come from the heroic efforts of a government researcher (Jennifer Ehle, who is a rare touch of warmth and compassion in the film) by using herself as a test subject for a vaccine, the body count has already reached millions in the months preceding the discovery; and the difficulties of manufacturing and distributing sufficient quantities of the vaccine become the third act of the film.
The movie’s main villain (played with a wonderfully rodent-like performance by Jude Law) is a blogger who spouts anti-vaccine hokum, spreads lies about the disease’s origins, and encourages people to embrace a false snake oil cure to enrich his own fortunes. There’s something especially sickening in the way he ruthlessly exploits his readers’ desperation.
The fact that in the end he doesn’t get a satisfactory comeuppance is part of the movie’s ambiguity just as we never learn what the ultimate fate of Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organization doctor is or that of Laurence Fishburne’s CDC Director who seems to face multiple dangers in the film’s close that are never resolved.
We don’t know what will happen; we have no control. And that is ultimately what makes Contagion as an apocalyptic scenario so terrifyingly real; it gives us no false sense of closure or resolution. Truly horrible things have happened before (be they viral outbreaks like the Spanish Flu in 1918 or cataclysmic natural disasters like the Tsunami), which we could neither prevent nor stop and they will happen again.