Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: 2011’s ‘Contagion’ Is Very COVID-19 Prescient

August 21, 2020 Updated: August 21, 2020

PG-13 | | Action, Drama, Thriller | 9 September 2011 (USA)

From a May 6, 2020, Washington Post article: “Faced with fear and uncertainty about a dangerous virus spreading quickly and potentially becoming a pandemic, many people are turning to movies and TV shows that depict a dangerous virus spreading quickly and definitely becoming a pandemic.

“Thats good news for the streaming services renting out the 2011 thriller ‘Contagion’ by Steven Soderbergh, which on Thursday [April 30, 2020] was the eighth most popular movie in the United States on iTunes. The movie is currently the second most popular film in the Warner Bros. catalog, up from 270th last year. Its newfound popularity coincides with the novel coronavirus being diagnosed in more people around the world and across the country.”

Pandemic Nuts and Bolts

Some of the things that generally go on in movies 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, and the deployment of the National Guard. There’s an unavoidable, “seen one, seen ’em all” aspect of virus-outbreak movies.

two children wearing scarves over their faces in "Contagion"
Young movie extras in masks in 2011’s “Contagion.” (Warner Bros.)

“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 film’s 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.

dead woman in "Contagion"
Gwyneth Paltrow in 2011’s “Contagion.” (Warner Bros.)

Also of note is Jude Law’s character, Alan Krumwiede, who appears to be a version of the assassin he played in “Road to Perdition.” 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.

man in hazmat suit in "Contagion"
Jude Law plays a journalist-blogger in 2011’s “Contagion.” (Warner Bros.)

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 punctuation!”

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 pandemic.

We never really find out if the government is trying to pull a stunt similar to one by 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 …

two Asian people wearing face masks in "Contagion"
Movie extras in masks in 2011’s “Contagion.” (Warner Bros.)

Who knows what’s going on? It’s left ambiguous. It demonstrates how a fear pandemic can be just as insidious and dangerous as an actual virus. 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’s the same fearmongering that Krumwiede is supposed to be demonstrating as being a bad thing. Film directors need to be responsible; large numbers of people who saw “Jaws” in 1975 won’t swim out farther than 10 feet from the shore 45 years later, not to mention that the film kicked off a massive, contagious human massacring of sharks.

Catching Up to COVID

Since my original review, I’ve gone from appreciating “Contagion” as a thriller to no longer wanting to be thrilled about a pandemic. I want answers. So does everyone else, judging by the number of viewings it’s receiving, and that’s probably due to the fact that the science in “Contagion” is by and large grounded in reality.

SARS happened, apparently, through some kind of human contact with bats. The disease in “Contagion” starts with the bats and adds pigs. Interestingly, it’s always starting someplace in China.

Two Chinese men and a piglet in "Contagion"
Movie extras handling pigs in 2011’s “Contagion.” (Warner Bros.)

If you’re looking for answers, it’s no secret that The Epoch Times has coined the term “CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus,” regarding the novel coronavirus, and presents factual evidence that China knowingly exported this contagion.

There’s much to ponder regarding plagues and pandemics in terms of the concept that all such occurrences reflect a debased state of human morality. Ancient China, long before the Cultural Revolution, had many such stories describing this connection.

Hopefully, this type of inner reflection becomes highly contagious and widespread before it’s too late.

a mass burial in "Contagion"
Scene featuring a mass grave in 2011’s “Contagion.” (Warner Bros.)

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, Marion Cotillard
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2011
Rated: 3 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch