It always starts with a cough. Naivety hints at the common cold. Or maybe it’s something worse, such as the flu. Maybe it’s a symptom of a deadly virus that threatens all life on Earth. The latter is the case with Steven Soderbergh’s latest slick and sophisticated Hollywood feature film, Contagion, which initiates the plot with the sound of a cough before an image is shown. We then see that it is Gwyneth Paltrow, starring as Beth Emhoff, who is coughing in an airport while waiting for her flight. When she exits the frame to board the plane, Soderbergh provides a series of shots that take note of fomites, which are inanimate objects such as door handles and glasses of water that can carry and spread disease. Little does she know that she is carrying a new and deadly virus from Hong Kong to the United States. Here is an arguably plausible multiple plot disaster film that analyzes the ways an invisible threat can quickly spread around the contemporary globe and takes into consideration the extent in which humans could react to such a crisis.
By the time Beth returns to her family in Minneapolis, her illness has seriously worsened. She falls to the floor in her home and seizures; her skin is pale and her mouth is foaming. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to the hospital and she is pronounced dead within a couple of hours. Mitch’s stepson dies from the same virus shortly thereafter. Crosscutting to Hong Kong, a young man (Tien You Chui) with the same symptoms as Beth walks deliriously, aimlessly in the streets and is run over by a large van. The virus spreads all over the globe in the period of a few days and no one knows what it is or where it came from.
Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is informed of the case and begins an investigation into its identity. Scientists are unable to properly study the virus because it destroys the cells it attaches itself to too quickly. They know, however, that the virus originated from a bat and a pig. San Francisco’s Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) manages to control the virus and duplicate it in the process of rebelling against CDC’s request to destroy his samples of the virus because only government owned laboratories are granted permission to study it due to its extremely contagious behavior. Cheever also sends Epidemic Intelligence Service operator Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to investigate the origins of the virus and to assemble the infected into a quarantined place such as an arena. She discloses that the virus is an indirect contact transmission virus; it can spread from one carrier to another during a handshake or by touching a door handle.
Once the setup for the film is complete, Soderbergh delves into the various human reactions to such an event. Mitch becomes overly protective of his daughter, keeping her locked inside of their house and demanding that she stay away from her boyfriend. Civilians riot, loot, and commit murder in the name of survival as cities begin to die out. The Department of Homeland Security fears that the virus is a bioweapon. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a paranoid conspiracy theorist blogger with millions of followers who is determined to inform the world of his inquiry into the government controlled CDC and the ways in which a cure would be selfishly regulated. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization of Gineva investigates the virus’s origins in Hong Kong by watching surveillance tapes of the casino where Beth caught the virus. She is kidnapped by Sun Feng (Chin Han) and escorted to a Chinese village where his family has been dying from the virus; her freedom will be granted when his village is placed first in line for a vaccination. Dr. Cheever’s motives are made clear when he warns his loved ones of the virus before releasing a public statement regarding its intensity. Characters worry that there will not be enough time to create and mass-produce an approved vaccination that could save millions of lives before all is lost. The world is not unified and nothing is fair.
Although the science behind the story is explained thoroughly, the film is not without its faults. The film’s weakness lies in the fact that more character development would be welcomed. Very little insight is provided into the Emhoff’s family life prior to infection. In fact, the infection hits so hard, so fast that Mitch’s family members are dead before proper introductions are provided; that is not to say that audiences feel detached from their predicament. Additionally, Dr. Orantes’ experience in the remote Chinese village is abandoned until the vaccine is created in the third act.
Empty airports. Empty streets. Empty gyms. Empty restaurants. Soderbergh reflects on the impact that a virus can have on human existence. This is a disaster film with restraint. Soderbergh does not rely on explosions and exaggerated natural disasters to excite audiences. The Bubonic plague killed roughly 75 million people; this is the starting point. It’s an invisible enemy that can spread at a faster rate than any wildfire or hurricane. Soderbergh instead excites audiences through emotionally logical performances from his actors, clean cinematography courtesy of the Red camera that treats its subjects with respect and dignity through voyeuristic framing, and a fearsome industrial score from Cliff Martinez (Traffic) that drives the film forward in a panic. Like a symptom of the disease, the film shifts from feeling warm to cold through its color palette. Curiously, Contagion opens with the title card: Day 2. “Cough! Cough!” Day 1 is revealed in the in the final minutes before cutting to black. Day 1 is like any other day.
Bryan Nixon is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay Scott Z. Burns
Producers Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Gregory Jacobs
Director of Photography Steven Soderbergh
Art Directors Abdellah Baadil, Simon Dobbin, David Lazan
Editor Stephen Mirrione
Costumes Louise Frogley
Score Cliff Martinez
With Marion Cotillard (Dr. Leonora Orantes), Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff), Laurence Fishburne (Dr. Ellis Cheever), Jude Law (Alan Krumwiede), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff), Kate Winslet (Dr. Erin Mears), Elliott Gould (Dr. Ian Sussman)