This Week at the Movies: Contagion


Want to be scared at the movies? No need to see a horror film – just head down to the next showing of Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh’s (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) new film. This film packs tension unlike any other. Centered on the idea of what would happen if a highly contagious disease broke out worldwide, Contagion followed the storylines of epidemiologists, patients infected and doctors at the CDC, among others, who were all connected by this deadly virus. With an excellent script that kept you tense in your seat (and a little nervous about everything you had touched in public that day), this film sucks you in as it follows the effects of a deadly virus.

What makes this film interesting is not simply the bodily harm of the virus, but the emotional and psychological impact of it. Which is the more deadly weapon: the virus or the fear and chaos it creates? The sheer rate at which the virus spreads is terrifying to consider: it is exponential. People could have it and not even know it. People simply walking down the street, touch­ing a doorknob or shaking someone’s hand could be infected. Led by a stellar cast, this film pulls you into story of the main character of the film: the virus itself. The impressive cast includes Gwenyth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love, Seven) as the potential patient zero, Kate Winslet (Titanic, The Reader) as a doctor for the CDC, Laurence Fishbourne (The Matrix Trilogy) as another CDC doctor, Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose, Inception) as a World Health Organization epidemiologist, Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes, Cold Mountain) as a blogger looking for the truth and Matt Damon (The Bourne Trilogy) as the husband of patient zero. The list goes on. However, this large cast allows for the explora­tion of the many issues raised by such an epidemic. Where and how did the virus start? How should the media cover the growing disease to not cause widespread panic? What must doctors do to identify the virus and create a vaccine? What should people do in response to not get it? What should the political response be? And, above all, how can the virus be stopped?

Every time the location of the film changes, the screen shows the name of the area and its population. Most are cities with popula­tions above five million people. In our highly urbanized world, we can come into contact with hundreds of people in one day, directly or indirectly. As the film says, we touch our face three to five times every waking minute (are you now very aware of that? I was, too, and have resisted doing it ever since. Thanks for the paranoia, Contagion).

Soderbergh does an incredible job on the film, shooting it in a way that keeps the tension high and the audience highly aware of every con­tact, every handshake, every wall or table that someone touches. The cam­era focuses on a coffee mug. Is this a source of transmission? It certainly keeps you on the edge of your seat about something you cannot even see. A great score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Drive) also keeps the pres­sure high. With digital beats very much in the style of the Oscar-winning Social Network soundtrack, it works very well in the film.

This film addresses one of the biggest potentials for disaster in to­day’s world. Beyond that simple importance, it is done in a smart, gripping and realistic way. There is no need for zombies or a freak storm to have a widespread disaster – simply a tiny molecule passed on through a handshake does the trick. As Laurence Fishbourne’s character says in the movie, “The handshake was started to show the person you meet you are not holding any weapons – I wonder if the virus knows that.” Apparently it doesn’t.

Although Contagion may make you want to stock up on hand sani­tizer and surgical masks, it is a fascinating look at the effects of a virus not only on a physical level, but also on a psychological one. You won’t be able to look away.

Contact Margaretta Burdick at [email protected].