Contagion (2011)

You feel dirty after watching a film like Contagion. You become aware of everyone’s coughing and sneezing, have an urge to wash your hands after touching anything, and hope that everyone else does the same — but you know they won’t, and you hate them for that. Here is a film about a disease outbreak that spreads so quickly and easily that it seems impossible for you to avoid catching it.

The first character we see it target is Gwyneth Paltrow’s. She returns home from a Hong Kong business trip, and within a few hours, she’s had a seizure and has been admitted to the local hospital. She dies. Her son, and her husband (Matt Damon), return home. The son doesn’t make it much longer, as he soon dies as well. Damon’s character is locked away for tests, although he feels fine. He’s visited by his biological daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who tells him that she’s all he has now. Soon, one family member might be more than many people have.

At the center of tracking this outbreak is Laurence Fishburne’s character. He, along with Kate Winslet (and a bunch of other people) have to figure out what they’re dealing with, how it spreads, and how to cure it. Meanwhile, a blogger played by Jude Law is trying to convince people that the cure is as simple as a homeopathic remedy. He gets sick and cures himself in a matter of hours. Marion Cotillard and Chin Han have characters who are also tracking the outbreak, dealing primarily with how it got started.

I think I’ve covered all of the main players. Each one of these are separate stories all set at the same time, but they don’t interact with each other — at least, for the most part. Winslet and Damon have a scene together, but that’s about as much crossing over as Contagion is concerned with. Each group of characters has their own mission (survival, profit, saving lives), although some of them aren’t as simple as you might think. Maybe someone’s hiding something, and doing things in order to accomplish this something. If that’s the most vague sentence I’ve ever written, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it fits perfectly with certain motivations that will be revealed as the film continues along.

This is a virus that spreads very quickly and is potentially as deadly as any disease that humans have ever encountered. What’s causing it? Is it simply nature’s way of taking back the planet? Someone suggests at one point that it’s a biological weapon, but doesn’t suggest who would want to use it. Maybe it has been unleashed by pharmaceutical companies wanting to increase their profit margins. Either way, our characters (for all we know) are all worried that it could destroy all of humankind, and that it needs to be stopped as soon as possible.

The central mystery (What is it? How can we stop it?) takes up most of our time. Meanwhile, as the seemingly immune characters all attempt to figure out what it is — save for Damon’s character — hundreds of thousands of people are dying. Contagion makes sure to tell us as days and soon weeks pass, and the characters are sure to keep the death toll a frequent topic of conversation. Through Damon, we watch stores being robbed, murders and house robberies occur, and society as a whole crumbling.

It doesn’t provide any new insight in this area, however. If you were told you have to hold up in your home, and nobody was working to allow you to buy groceries (plus, the bank’s closed anyway, so you can’t withdraw cash), are you going to let your family starve to death? We’ve seen these types of things happening before, and it’s no surprise when that happens. Then again, nothing in Contagion is particularly surprising. Steven Soderbergh’s film isn’t interested in that; it wants to creep you out and remind you that it’s important to wash your hands before every meal.

Okay, I’ll admit that this is putting things too simply, but that’s the gist of it. Thankfully, we have a good director working with a strong cast and an interesting premise, so we’ve got the makings of a good film. Ultimately, that’s what Contagion is. It does nothing especially well, but everything it does is just fine, and the experience as a whole is worthwhile, if a little unnerving. After it’s done, you wonder just how realistic it is, and if something like this could really happen.

Where it falters is in its ending. It doesn’t seem quite sure how to end, especially after all of the dark things that had happened earlier. There’s a little too much explanation in its conclusion (the final scene of the film didn’t need to be there, as far as I’m concerned), and it doesn’t quite match the rest of the tone of the film. But Contagion is still infectious at the way it gets inside your mind and forces you to notice things you normally would ignore, like every time you touch your face or don’t wash before eating.

Contagion is an effective movie even if it doesn’t necessarily do anything especially well. It’s more interested in having smart people figure things out than the characters themselves (I can’t remember a single character name), and any insight it contains has been shown before. But it’s well-made, has a solid cast, and is fairly creepy in the way that you can’t forget about it after it’s over. I think it’s worth watching, although more for the cast than anything else.

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