Columnist reviews Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 feature film Contagion.
By James Underwood, ’23.
Warning: This film review contains plot spoilers.
As large swaths of the US population continue life under lockdown, it should come as no surprise that Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion has seen a resurgence in popularity, even reaching a spot on the coveted iTunes movie rental chart as early as late January. After all, the film has striking similarities to the current pandemic: a cross-species virus meets an unknowing victim in China before spreading indiscriminately across the world, tearing up families, sparking chaos and unrest and fomenting alluring but altogether baseless conspiracy theories.
The film begins in a Chicago airport, where businesswoman Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, finds herself coughing and touching various surfaces. The unnerving soundscape accompanying each contact leaves even the most insouciant among us unsettled and longing for a quick squirt of Purell, thank you very much. This was no doubt the intended effect even nine years ago, but eyes shaped by the first half of 2020 are bound to have a more intense reaction.
And therein lies the magic of watching Contagion in 2020: we the viewers are uncomfortably aware of and familiar with what’s to come to our hapless protagonists; indeed, our lived experience supplements—one might even say rivals—the filmmakers’ careful and clever research and planning. If this unintended and all-too-real dramatic irony is apparent from the outset, it only becomes more pervasive as the film goes on.
Emhoff returns home to meet her husband, Mitch, where her condition worsens until she eventually has a seizure, is taken to the hospital and dies. Mitch is left locked down at home with his daughter after his son suddenly dies.
We are soon introduced to a cast of characters at the CDC and World Health Organization whose narratives run parallel to Mitch’s situation. There’s a reason that when describing this spate of storylines I stop short of anything beyond “parallel to”: we see at no point any direct interaction between the two. This jadedness and disconnect is another hidden beauty of Contagion.
We see the decision rooms from which the powers that be issue their edicts and conduct their research, and we see how the people under their governance are impersonally affected by this, but most importantly, we see how this one-sided relationship weakens and almost disintegrates as the virus spreads.
When, for example, an enterprising blogger promotes a bogus cure, or a CDC official tells a loved one of a planned but unannounced border closure, the viewer is forced to contemplate the interaction that we encounter during times of hardship between the individual and the systems under which they are forced to live.
This delicate balance (which at times becomes tension), hidden under layers of irony, reminds us of the true fragility of the complex institutions upon which we rely. Film is perhaps an especially well-suited medium to convey these subtexts, but Contagion accomplishes the job masterfully.
The last few minutes of Contagion take the viewer back to the beginning. We see the virus make its way from a forest in China to its first victims. Watching the events which precipitated the entire plot of the film at first provides relief—the viewer can finally attribute the chaos to something tangible.
But this relief is superficial; it quickly gives way to a dreadful awareness that the very way of life which humanity has, for better or worse, chosen in the past few centuries guarantees future outbreaks ad infinitum.
Eventually, a vaccine is developed. We watch as our characters get vaccinated and prepare for a hopeful future, but the film doesn’t delve into how humanity rebuilds, mirroring our current, perhaps faulty, psyche: once a vaccine is approved, all will be well. Of course, Contagion depicts a world far bleaker than the one we see today, or are on track to see anytime soon. And so, perhaps above all else, Contagion serves as a chilling and sobering—but not necessarily cynical—reminder that things could have been, and can still become, much, much worse.