Sep 20, 2011


I'm with the Japanese. I believe that at this point in human history we can relegate the hand shake to an ancient custom. We live in a time where you shake someone's hand and could get sick. So why don't we all greet strangers with a respectful little bow? According to Contagion, we could save ourselves a lot of grief.
The first half of this movie is pretty gripping. Nothing scarier than a natural disaster movie in which the killer is invisible, airborne and spreads by contact or by sneezing. The first sequence is a precise rendering of our modern fears. Someone shakes a hand in Hong Kong and dozens of people get terribly sick all over the world. Our cramped urban and flying quarters are hotbeds of infectious disease, and paranoia. The opening sequence includes many darkly fun takes of innocuous daily occurrences that become tinged with peril. A horrible death may lurk inside an innocent bowl of peanuts. Anybody who lives in a big city with a subway is going to get a perverse kick out of this film. The New York audience chuckled with delight at a scene in which a very sick guy is told to get off a bus and he touches absolutely every pole in said vehicle before he gets out.
The spread of contagion is seemingly initiated by Gwyneth Paltrow while having fun in Macao. By the time she gets home to Minneapolis, she looks like death. The initial symptoms are classic flu, and as we all know, that has never stopped anyone from doing whatever they need to do. But then it gets much worse. We don't know how she got it. Is it avian flu, pig flu, a stomach flu, or was it a night of forbidden sex?  Soon the movie is talking about 25 million victims. The efficacy with which director Steven Soderbergh shows the world reacting and adapting to the pandemic is chillingly matter-of-fact and it's the best part of the movie. He lets the details tell the story. A sniffling passenger on a plane gets a glass from a stewardess, and there goes the global neighborhood, from normalcy to a state of emergency like from 0 to 60. Without much warning, the signs of society breaking down start appearing on the screen. The first sign of apocalypse is uncollected garbage everywhere (a perfectly normal occurrence in New York City, which may be the reason why the filmmakers chose San Francisco to shoulder the burden of chaos instead). I loved the visual scope of the movie. An enormous empty warehouse is found to quarantine the sick in the US and Kate Winslet, playing an investigator from the CDC says, "great, now we need four more like this one". A simple shot of a steep San Francisco street, strewn with garbage, is a perfect visual metaphor for a world turned upside down by a mysterious infectious disease. Forget about zombies, vampires or even evil Muslims. The bugs are much scarier (which may be the reason why this is the number one movie in America).
An interesting idea the film posits is: when something like this happens, how do the authorities react in order not to create mass panic and mayhem? Who can benefit from such massive distress? (Somebody will). And what is the ethical way to proceed if you have inside information about the disease? Like the virus, one word from an expert asking someone not to tell anyone is all it takes to spread panic among the population. What if that anyone is a good friend you ran into at the supermarket? How can you keep a secret like that?
As other critics have pointed out, Contagion makes clear, despite Republican protestations to the contrary, that no one but the government is equipped to deal with impeding doom of this scale. The Centers for Disease Control, which is the epicenter of the movie, its fictional budget hopefully un-slashed, goes in full heroic mode trying to contain, and find a vaccine for the disease. The head of the CDC is played with humane gravitas by Laurence Fishburne. I'm happy to see an African American actor in a role usually reserved for white stars. One of the most subversive aspects of the movie is, in fact, the casting. Most of the heroes are women: Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, they all play capable scientists trying to contain the disease. The always solid Matt Damon plays Paltrow's husband, yet his heroics are of a purely personal nature. He is relegated to keeping himself and his teenage daughter alive, which is no small feat considering that he needs to keep her away from her boyfriend at all times.
But as smart as Contagion is, it has some heavy handed aspects. Jude Law plays a blogger with a suspicious either cockney or Aussie accent, who spreads rumors and misinformation. He is such a nefarious villain that they even mar his handsome face with a rotten front tooth, an unnecessary choice, since Law relishes being despicable with no need for prosthetics. Although I liked that the movie made a forceful point against the kind of people who spread unfounded rumors about useful vaccines and idiotic conspiracy theories or who profit from widespread panic, I thought the filmmakers were too unfair to bloggers. We are in trouble when the blogger in the movie is even more conniving than the hedge fund manager. What about religious nutcases? I expected them to make an appearance as the usual cheerleaders of doom, always in time to celebrate an upcoming apocalypse, and I find their absence unrealistic. There is also a loathsome female bureaucrat. It wasn't clear to me who exactly she works for, but she is the kind of person who says no first, and asks questions later.  
The movie is structured like Babel or Traffic, (they share the same editor, Stephen Mirrione, who has worked on many an unruly plot structure). This is both a strength and a weakness. This braided structure lends itself more naturally to this story of truly global repercussions. But then there's the problem of tying a bunch of loose ends by the messy final third of the movie, which is when the movie deflates. Soderbergh seems to be in total control of the narrative up to the midpoint or even later, but then characters that seemed to have an important role are promptly forgotten. Elliot Gould is introduced as a scientist who is growing live viruses in his lab and then he is unceremoniously dropped (you can do that to other actors, but not to him). Something unbelievable happens to Marion Cotillard while she investigates the source of the outbreak, but in the movie no one seems to care about her fate until the very last minute. This dilutes the concentrated, scary excitement that the movie builds while showing simultaneously the search for a way to stop the outbreak, the heartbreaking personal story of Matt Damon, the vulnerability of the first responders, and the general chaos, which is the most fun. Looting, forlorn airports, scarcity, mayhem, and key actors dying surprisingly soon. I loved that. The disease spares no one, even if they have won Oscars.
But the movie has a relatively pat ending that ties all the loose ends all too neatly and somehow belies its own thesis, which is that fighting infectious diseases that keep mutating is very hard and takes too long. Jennifer Ehle (who, to tug at your heartstrings, needs to be the daughter of another selfless scientist who is dying of the disease), spends most of her time on screen saying unintelligible scientific words with great assurance and looking very hard for a vaccine. She then ends up saving mankind, I will not disclose how, but I thought that it was too easy.
The movie starts at Day 2 of the pandemic and ends at Day 1, when we finally find out what made Gwynnie sick. I wish it would have shown more clearly that, ironically, it is our progress, the fact that we have built roads connecting distant villages and bringing better living standards to people, that allows viruses that have never lived outside non-human host to travel towards us in our shrunken world.
Still, as disaster movies go, Contagion is smarter than usual, and scarier. 


  1. wait wait wait -- do we really buy into the paranoiac disaster scenario where handshakes are dangerous and follow it in OUR EVERYDAY LIVES? I thought you were joking in the first paragraph but then you actually mean it? Most of the actually dangerous infections are contracted on operating tables not by shaking people's hands. A great paranoia-fest, but do you want to take it seriously? And next time the vampire movies, too?

  2. I'm half joking. I don't know where you live, but in NYC when I worked in an office, you could chart the spread of the flu because it went from cubicle to cubicle, felling coworkers mercilessly in a domino effect. If someone used your phone with their gnarly hands, you could be toast.
    Don't get me started on hospitals. I may choose to die in the wilderness.
    I think handshakes are overrated. Bowing and pressing your palms together is so much nicer. Still, as I am a civilized and well brought up person, I will shake hands and give unnecessary social kisses to people I barely know but like Bartleby, I'd prefer not to. Plus, I'd rather do this than stop eating pork, which is what two older Black ladies were screaming at the screen at the end of the show of Contagion I saw.