Contagion: Moral Lessons and Stories Which Do Not End

Dear Ladies, Steven Soderbergh has a very important message just for you: don’t cheat on your husbands. Because you’ll die. And spark a global epidemic of flu-like encephalitis and subsequent rhesus monkey shortage.

Contagion is one of those rare films where I was never really sure if I was enjoying it or not. Part of my confusion stems from its lack of focused character arc caused by a veritable plethora of POV characters some of whom you meet briefly and never see again. It was like going on a series of moderately successful but rapid fire blind dates against the backdrop of the Spanish Influenza outbreak of the early 20th century. Call me old fashioned, but I want to be courted by my cinematic experiences.  I want a flirtatious glance, a long conversation and chaperoned–okay this analogy wandered away from me at some point.

Plot!  It had one–I think.

We open with Gwyneth Paltrow and a bunch of other people all over the world who all die. The CDC and WHO are alerted and dispatched to Minnesota and Hong Kong, respectively. We have cut scenes and follow shots of coughing and runny noses and concerned relatives. Gwyneth gets the best death scene: spastically twitching on the floor while her son (who will also die) looks on from the doorway.

Before anyone with a medical degree figures out what’s going on, we are introduced to our obligatory conspiracy theorist Jude Law. He jumps on the government/pharmaceutical company evil plot bandwagon before they even hitch the JFK-magic-bullet cart to the lizard-alien horses. He stalks Elliot Gould outside a building to ambush him with questions about swine bat flu (not to be confused with man bear pig flu) and inexplicably declare that he is a writer. Elliot, because he is fabulous, delivers the best line of the entire film:

“A blog isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

Touché, sir. Touché.

So women all over the world jump on the mystery disease. And I do mean women. All over the world. Because if you start a film with a blonde harlot, you are morally obligated to put twice as many other women in positions to make it better.  Enter: The Jane Austen Fight Club.

Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) is dispatched to Minnesota to investigate the clusterfuck triggered by Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Elizabeth Bennett (Jennifer Ehle) actually saves the world. And Marion Cottilard (I’m sure Edith Piaf read a regency novel at some point in her life and Inception is basically Persuasion in that both films end in ‘ion’) gets all of China.

And men get stories too! Laurence Fishburne (Kate Winslet’s boss) tells his ladyfriend some information he shouldn’t for which there will be important government hearings at some point possibly maybe in the future because THAT’S what Congress is going to want to do after a worldwide pandemic of deathy deathness and Matt Damon (Gwyneth Paltrow’s husband) has a continuing story with his daughter which boils down to: don’t kiss your boyfriend or I will shoot his head off with this shotgun I stole.

Now for the disappearing acts.  Some of these characters do their part and then we never see them again. Elliot Gould, for example, grows something and then poof!  He is no longer needed. Marian Cottilard is kidnapped, the script forgets she exists for about 2 acts, and her final scene has her running down an airport hallway and we sort of know where she’s going and why, but we never know if she actually goes to do something of consequence or she just really, really needs to pee.

Perhaps this my obsession with CSS and HTML coding, but the movie blossomed like a series of nesting elements and not all of them were closed. The only story that I felt was done well was Matt Damon’s. The story opens with Gwyneth Paltrow followed by Matt Damon, and it ends with Matt Damon followed by Gwyneth Paltrow (we get a series of flashbacks via security camera footage and Paltrow’s digital camera). It worked. Maybe it’s my obsessive compulsiveness kicking in, but I feel like if you’re going to symmetrize some elements, you should either be symmetrical everywhere else or purposefully asymmetrical. Threads can be closed out of order–like Kate Winslet’s brief, but powerful death–but where the hell is Elliot Gould?  Did the bloggers eat him?

Speaking of unanswered questions: the movie never tells us how many people actually died. We get one line that states only 1 in 4 die. But we also have some serious implications elsewhere that the number is much, much higher.  Also, how many people are actually getting sick–and if they get sick once are they immune? These questions matter because they are the only explanation for people’s responses resulting in the complete and total destruction of civil order.

What bothered and yet impressed me was the speed and extent to which infrastructure broke down. Whole cities were quarantined; the border to Wisconsin closed (you know it’s the apocalypse because people are actually trying to get there).

However, one minute Matt Damon is in line for government issued MREs and the next is sitting in his very much still electricity-fied house. Forgive me for nitpicking, but I feel like there are levels of disorder and Government refugee food distribution trucks enter stage right as Electricity exits (pursued by a bear).  How is he getting food, gasoline, shaving supplies?  Have we moved to a barter system yet?

In some ways I think extreme breakdowns (like martial law) only work on a small scale: a village, a town, maybe an entire county.  They work because people go crazy when you try to contain them despite a very real internal threat.  But this movie was not about small scale. According to the very scary global maps and dour predictions, 1 in 12 people everywhere would be infected in a month (the movie took place over a year or more). Based on when the teamsters and other unions went on strike, you’d have global irreversible catastrophe pretty quickly.  People would be living in zombie fortress bunkers.  They would hole up in their homes. Which would be good because get everyone away from personal interactions for more than a week and this virus will COME TO A SCREECHING HALT.

It was the nod to realism in some places (like the amount of time it actually takes to create a vaccine, the absolute stupidity over “cures”, and the exploration of panic and social breakdown) and the extremist apocalypse bullsh** in other places which created an uncomfortable tension. When you do hints of the world over extended periods of time everything you show should feel undeniably true: yes, this is exactly the way it would be.

Part of the problem is undeniable inevitability is generally the result of familiar patterns. They made nods to Spanish Influenza and Polio but never gave me enough historical precedent for current events. I wasn’t alive in the early part of the 20th century and haven’t read up on viral outbreaks to know which infrastructure subsets collapse and for how long. My impression of the world is minor disruptions cause severe damage. We no longer live on or near farms. If food isn’t trucked in from the Midwest, if manufacturing ceases, if the thousands of cogs in the machinery of the global economy start to rust and crumble, we’re going to have more deaths by starvation than any flu. Looting for food makes sense.  Looting for a drug when not all the people who want it are actually sick, doesn’t.  Why?  Because if you’re not sick then you stay inside to AVOID THE PEOPLE WHO MIGHT BE SICK.  And hardly anyone in the US (or elsewhere for that matter) was wearing a surgical mask.

So again: what’s the mortality rate? 1 in 4? 3 in 4? Going from 25% to 75, 80, 90% mortality is going to go a long way to explaining why the panic is actually nearing a rational response. And if it’s not a rational response, if the message you’re trying to tell is how people are idiots and will kill themselves faster than a virus through fear and rumor mongering, then just GO THERE. Break down society into tiny, barely manageable chunks and when the dust settles and the vaccine trots itself out, show how there are absolutely no people anywhere to take it. For a bonus, show a grizzled Matt Damon passing a grizzled Viggo Mortenson on a street somewhere with their respective single children and the weight of their dead wives on their shoulders.

“Women,” they say to each other.  Then they shrug, and walk off into the distance. To die. Alone. In the dark.

P.S. There’s a 60% chance you’ve already been spoiled for this movie.

P.P.S. Snape killed Dumbledore.

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3 thoughts on “Contagion: Moral Lessons and Stories Which Do Not End

  1. Nice review. Soderbergh’s Contagion offers little new about fear and horror but his behind-the-camera ability to be fresh — along with help from an all-star cast — elevates his thriller from boredom, if only just slightly. Check out my review when you get a chance!

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