Fear of Contagion, and the Contagion of Fear

September 10, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015
Gwyneth Paltrow in the thriller 'Contagion.' (Claudette Barius/ Warner Bros. Pictures)
Gwyneth Paltrow in the thriller 'Contagion.' (Claudette Barius/ Warner Bros. Pictures)

Director: Stephen Soderbergh
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Some of the things that go on in a movie about a contagious epidemic are how it spreads, the symptoms, the advanced stages of frothing and convulsing, the one immune person who can’t catch it, the quarantining, the hazmat suits, the isolating of its origin, the suspicious talk of some country having “weaponized” it, the frantic search for its vaccine, the mass panic, the deployment of the national guard …

Regardless of the “seen one, seen ’em all” aspect of virus-outbreak movies, someone really ought to find a good way to re-tell such a story in this day and age of AIDS, SARS, Ebola, Anthrax, and the bird and swine flus.

“Contagion” opens with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character exhibiting symptoms. The camera looks suspiciously at places of human contact—subway poles, sipped drinks, indiscreet public coughing, and so on. Paltrow’s bits are among the films creepiest, since, award-winning actress that she is, she looks rather horrifyingly convincing while in the throes of advanced symptoms. She also does an excellent job of looking extremely dead.

Also of note here is Jude Law’s character, Alan Krumwiede, who appears to be a version of the assassin he played in “Road to Perdition”—same walk and similar funky teeth. He drives most of the more interesting plot lines as a conspiracy-theory journalist-blogger looking to sniff out sinister government involvement in the virus’s spread.

His ideas are a bit too all over the place, and he’s eventually reprimanded by Elliott Gould’s brilliant research doctor with the excellent line, “Blogging is not writing! It’s graffiti with punctuations!”

Nevertheless, a mirroring of the physical epidemic is shown in the proliferation of hordes of people (12 million) flocking to Krumwiede’s website for answers, thus creating a panic epidemic.

We never really find out if the government is trying to pull a stunt similar to the James Bond villain Goldfinger, who intended to detonate a small atomic bomb in Fort Knox, thus rendering all the gold radioactive and thereby sending his personal gold stock through the roof. If everyone’s dying and the government has the only vaccine …

Who knows what’s going on? It’s good that this is left ambiguous. It demonstrates how the pandemic of fear can be just as insidious and dangerous as an actual virus.

What makes “Contagion” a bit more intellectually terrifying (if not terribly viscerally terrifying) than your average contagion flick, is that the science in the story is by and large grounded in reality. SARS happened, apparently, through some kind of human contact with bats. “Contagion” starts with the bats and adds pigs.

There will be more such real-life outbreaks. In a quote from the film’s press notes, Soderbergh says, “This film could do for elevator buttons and doorknobs what ‘Jaws’ did for going to the beach.”

Is that a good thing? That would seem to fall into the exact same category of fear mongering, that the character Krumwiede in “Contagion” is supposed to be demonstrating as being a bad thing.

In terms of quality of life, people are vulnerable to such intentions. For one thing, large numbers of people who saw “Jaws” in 1974 can’t swim out farther than 10 feet from the shore, nearly 40 years later. What else came of this fear? It kicked off a massive, contagious human massacring of sharks, which is not particularly good for sharks, humans, or the environment.

Speaking of the environment, we live in a time of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, fires, floods, famine, genocide, nuclear-reactor melt-downs, oil spill pollution, AIDS, and SARS. Instead of trying to cash in on, as well as further fuel the fear that’s already rampant concerning future virus outbreaks, it would seem more responsible for such a celebrated and closely followed director to try and generate a little hope.

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch