Contagion (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Haven’t you washed your hands?

 Remember when your parents told you wash your hands after coming into the house? After watching “Contagion”, you probably think serious about washing your hands. Starting with the sudden outbreak of a new epidemic, the movie chillingly shows how easier it is for the epidemic to be spread all over the world than before thanks to the advancement in our civilization, especially if it is highly contagious. We move more widely and frequently, and so does the epidemic, always ready for generating its new generations.

On Day 2 of the outbreak, Beth Emhoff(Gwyneth Peltrow) is not feeling well, and we know why. She is probably the first patient of the virus that will soon run amuck around the world, and, while coming from Hong Kong to her home in Minnesota by plane, she spreads the disease around the people who happens to be close enough to touch her or touch the objects she has just touched. It sounds preposterous, but, as one doctor in the movie says, we touch our faces around 3,000 times a day – that means quite a lot of chance for the contagions to go from one person to another person.

Beth dies at the hospital, while other similar sudden deaths are reported around the other parts of the world. The officials and the scientists in CDC and WHO begin to sense the beginning of the disaster that will possibly kill lots of people. They quickly identify the virus responsible for the disease thanks to the genomic analysis of the samples obtained from the autopsies(so we have to see Peltrow’s scalp is peeled away in one scene), but this is a new kind of virus which has not been reported before. The number of infected people grows exponentially day by day. The countries all over the world soon go into the emergency situation within a month.

 Now it sounds like a plot of the disaster movie; we indeed have various characters played by well-known actors in this biological disaster of epic proportion. Beth’s husband Mitch(Matt Damon) luckily turns out to be immune to the virus but he worries about his daughter’s safety – and there is more to worry about for him while they and other people do not hear any good new from the media. There are experts who try to resolve the situation at CDC and WHO. While Dr. Cheever(Laurence Fishburne) sends Dr. Mears(Kate Winslet) to Minnesota for handling the situation, Dr. Sussman(Elliot Gould) in San Francisco works to find a way to culture this lethal virus for the study that can lead them into the production of the vaccine, and Dr. Orantes(Marion Cotillard) from WHO tries to pinpoint ‘the patient zero’ in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, there is a blogger named Alan Krumwiede(Jude Law) spreading the unconfirmed rumor about government/corporation conspiracy on Internet, which can be more harmful than virus.

This premise can be easily developed into a frantic thriller movie, but, while their situation is getting worse and worse, the director Steven Soderbergh maintains the cold, documentary-like approach not unlike the one we encountered in his Oscar-winning work, “Traffic”(2000). While moving around various places including London, Hong Kong, Chicago, he captures well the realistic presentation of the global society affected by the epidemic and the following responses from the people. I have no idea what will happen when the epidemic breaks out globally, but it will be similar to what depicted in the movie. While looking at this dangerous situation in a large scale, Soderbergh also observes the small details in a smaller, intimate scale, like when it shows how the virus can be quickly spread around people in our era. It is really scary to think that you can be infected by virus just with one small touch from someone.

I especially like its depiction of the experts, their tasks, and their limits, which are far more realistic than the movies like “Outbreak”(1995). The scientist struggle to find the vaccine, and it takes many trials and many times. Even if they succeed in producing the vaccine, there are the formal procedures to consume another valuable amount of time. Furthermore, it cannot be prepared immediately in the amount large enough to fulfill the need; there is the distribution problem to be followed and the movie briefly touches on that issue.

 Meanwhile, many people keep dying outside. The government officials try to keep the situation under the control, but people like Mitch see their world changed and then being crumbled step by step. The world goes on, but the end of the civilization may be possible even if the scientists finally develop the vaccine. The virus cannot wipe out the entire human race even in the worst scenario(lethality is 25%) and the experts in the movie predicts 1% of the global population will die, but please multiply 7 billions by 0.01.

Among the actors assembled for this movie, many of them were nominated for Oscar or won it before. While any of them will not get Oscar-nominated for this movie in the next year, they do exactly what their roles require them to do under Soderbergh’s direction. As the scientist who races against the time to develop the vaccine, Jennifer Ehle is more notable compared to the other actors, for her character’s story has a little more dramatic aspect than others. Other actors are wasted to some degree. Marion Cotillard is literally held as the hostage by the plot assigned to her character. In case of Jude Law, I find his character distracting like an unnecessary sore thumb. Maybe his character is supposed to be like that, but his motive is not clearly defined, and he functions as nothing but a noisemaker in the story.

After his success with “Traffic”, Soderbergh has gone back and forth between the commercial movies and small independent movies. “Contagion” is, like “Solaris”(2002), a hybrid between them, and it is a compelling work with scary elements to be lingered on your mind if you know what to expect from it. The epidemic has come upon the civilization several times in the human history, and, as the last sequence implies, this unseen menace can suddenly come out of the nature to start its disastrous rampage far bigger than the previous outbreaks. We have made our world smaller and smaller through planes, trains, and automobiles – and we have also made a certain danger bigger and bigger in that process.

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1 Response to Contagion (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Haven’t you washed your hands?

  1. Greg says:

    Even though I’ve always been good about washing my hands, I’ve paid more attention to washing my hands after watching this film.

    One correction: Paltrow’s character dies at a hospital, not at her home.

    SC: Thanks for the correction!

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