Civilization is a finely tuned balancing act. Sure, humanity as a species is pretty stable and adaptive, or we’d never have gotten to where we are now. But society and culture are still precarious. In Contagion, Steven Soderbergh asks us to watch as the whole structure begins to teeter under the impact of a lethal, worldwide epidemic.
Somewhere in China, the wrong bat comes in contact with the wrong pig. The bat and the pig are each carrying a strain of a virus in the influenza family; the strains are probably ones that doesn’t even cause their native hosts much distress, and which wouldn’t spread between humans even if a human managed to pick them up in the first place. But the bat flu meets the pig flu and something horrible is born in Hong Kong. It makes its way around a casino in Kowloon before people jet off to London, Tokyo, Minneapolis, et cetera, and even back to the crowded cities and villages in Guangdong Province.
The woman returning to Minneapolis is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who we meet on day two, looking pallid and rheumy at an airport bar in Chicago. In Minneapolis that evening she returns to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon) and young son. The next day she collapses in a seizure and dies at the hospital. Her son is dead before Mitch can return home. Blessed or cursed, Mitch seems to be immune, which leaves him to watch over his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), as the nightmare slowly unfolds.
But, this being a Soderbergh film, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Mitch and Jory are our main emotional touchstones, but the story plays out far and wide. We watch the response from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and spearheaded in Minneapolis by Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet). We watch their researchers, Drs. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin) desperately search for a cause and a vaccine, along with civilian researcher Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) while the Department of Homeland Security — headed by Rear Admiral Lyle Haggarty (Bryan Cranston) — worries about the national security implications and responses. [EDIT: Dave, below, clarifies that Haggarty is associated with the CDC; the only DHS figure is a relatively minor one played by Enrico Colantoni. Seriously, there’s a lot going on and it’s easy to get lost on a single viewing without a scorecard.]
On a more global scale, the World Health Organization dispatches Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Hong Kong to try and identify what exactly happened, but her translator, Sun Feng (Chin Han), has a personal connection to the case, and personal motives. And then there’s Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a freelance journalist and blogger who posts a video of a man dying on a Japanese train, and sees in it his chance to get rich advocating a holistic cure made of forsythia.
There’s so much going on that at times it can feel almost like a crash course in epidemiology 101. We hear about fomite transmission, protein loci, viral “family trees”, and the basic reproduction number, dubbed R0. The last I believe is explained correctly by Winslet’s character at first, but later mangled somewhat by Law’s, which may have been intentional on his part. Even so, his visceral description of exponential — 2, 4, 16, 256, 65536 — rather than geometric — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 — growth is likely to be the one to stick in the audience’s mind, which makes me worry that the film contains just enough scientific information to be dangerous.
Still, this risk may be outweighed by the logistical information Soderbergh presents. These are the considerations that go into an emergency hospital; these are the dangers that agents from the CDC willingly face; this is what it takes to not only determine what is causing an illness, but how to cure it, to cure it safely, to manufacture the cure, and to distribute the cure effectively; yes, there are people who profit from and even incite panic, and just because someone is telling a story that plays to your fears and prejudices does not mean he is telling the truth.
The deaths we see are horrible, but the most horrific part of the epidemic is its steady inexorability. Humanity can and will adapt to deal with this problem, but it will take time. While those trapped under quarantine wait, there is nothing to be done other than personal hygiene and “social distancing”; hermits evidently have a leg up when it comes to epidemiology. But even if you avoid the disease, how do you protect yourself and your family from those who aren’t as level-headed, especially when that may include those who normally keep the peace? Could it be that we ourselves present the greatest threat when the normal order is overturned?
Either way, we must learn to keep our heads and work together when — not if — the unexpected happens. Looking around, I don’t know that we have it in ourselves to pull it off, and that may be the scariest part of all.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.