I still remember the atmosphere in the city when Swine Flu and H1N1 were breaking out. I was asked to clean my hands with a transparent, gooey liquid each time I entered the office though I was coming fresh during the morning. Everywhere I looked on the streets, I saw people driving their vehicles with their mouths & noses covered with funny-looking masks. At the time, I thought most of these people were paranoid, largely due to my ignorance of the seriousness of the virus. I felt safe within the walls of my own world in Chennai living off great facilities. I told myself, “What virus could enter my territories and leave me for dead!” Thankfully, nothing did happen to me. Recently, however, I found out how wrong my ignorance of the magnitude of the situation was. And it was thanks to the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, featuring an ensemble cast that would make anyone’s mouth water.
Contagion focuses on what people from all walks of life would do in case of a major world outbreak, one that is considerably larger in size and spread than any of the aforementioned viruses. There’s Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) who was the first person to be struck with tragedy as he lost his wife, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), and stepson to the virus. There’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who is heading the CDC team working on a vaccine and whose job it is to prevent the spread of panic in the population. There’s Cheever’s onsite person Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) whose job it is to track the spread of the virus and contain it in order to prevent widespread outbreak. There’s Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), part of Cheever’s lab team, whose job it is to devise a cure. There’s Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) from the World Health Organization who is tracking the spread of the virus in Hong Kong. And finally there’s Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger with over 12 million unique viewers by his own admission, who is a conspiracy theorist of sorts suggesting that pharmaceutical companies are collaborating with government officials for a huge spike in profits when the vaccine goes public.
With a strong set of characters like that, the director leaves no stone unturned. He meticulously observes what each of them does during the days following the first news of the outbreak. Mitch, it seems, is somehow immune to the virus but is not ready to risk the safety of his daughter who is the only family he has left. His is the representation of the common man in the film, and it is a fair one. Everywhere he looks, he sees total anarchy. People breaking into stores and stealing everything. Fights breaking out at supermarkets for medicine stocks or at food handouts due to lack of supplies. Some of his actions seem paranoid to his teenage daughter as it prevents her from seeing her boyfriend, but who can blame him when scores of people are dying all over the world. His sole purpose is to make sure his daughter comes through the ordeal unscathed, and it makes for great viewing.
On the other side of things, we get a detailed look at how organizations like CDC and WHO react in such situations. Medically, there’s a lot of information to be gleaned from this, and a lot is revealed as well. Both Erin and Leonora track the origin of the virus separately at opposite corners of the globe (U.S. and Hong Kong) and run into different fates as a result. Ellis is the suit trying to keep all parties safe and happy. That includes protecting his family as well which returns to bite back at him. Ally, with the help of Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould), is hard at work figuring out the virus’ structure so that a vaccine can be devised; and later testing out different vaccines in the hope that one will prove to be successful in ending the nightmare.
As almost every other reviewer has already pointed out, the only aspect of the story that proves to be misguided is that of the blogger Alan. His is a sleazy character looking to prey on the helplessness and fear of his readers. One of his acts directly results in riots breaking out at supermarkets. His true intentions are revealed as the film goes on, and he ends up being the on-screen depiction of the ugly side of such a disaster. And that is saying something when the film also contains lots of government officials looking to protect their own asses.
Contagion is a character-oriented film, and that means the weight of its success solely rests on the actors. Steven Soderbergh has assembled a stellar ensemble cast to assist him for this purpose. There are no real standouts, no names that are going to be on awards lists come the end of the year, but the caliber of each of the individual performances is consistently high as was to be expected. Matt Damon is perfect in the role of the everyday man. Despite his considerable star power, we are not seeing Matt Damon in the film, for the most part. We are only seeing Mitch Emhoff as he struggles to keep his daughter safe amidst the madness breaking out all around him. It is another brilliant performance that demonstrates Damon’s considerable range as an actor. Laurence Fishburne draws on his experience to depict the moral dilemma that someone in Ellis’ position always faces. Ellis does something unethical during the film, and it is largely thanks to Fishburne that we are almost on his side even though we are not supposed to be.
Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Jennifer Ehle are responsible for much of the humanity in the film. They are great actresses in their own right and imbibe their characters with enough depth and humanity in spite of not having the largest of screen times. Jude Law looks nothing like the charmer we’ve come to expect, complete with crooked teeth to disguise his good boy appearance. He is able to fashion a truly detestable character out of Alan Krumwiede who uses the tools at his disposal for more notorious deeds.
Contagion is a disaster film in that it observes how the world will react to such a scenario by focusing on the actions of a small group of characters. However, it is also more intellectual than any such film that has come before it. Unlike other disaster films that are mostly fueled by fictional situations, this could very well end up happening at any time. That lends a certain sense of verisimilitude to the film that is rarely seen in this genre. It also made sure that the next time a huge outbreak threatens the world, I won’t be as ignorant as I was last time. That is enough to make it a great movie in my books.