Brendan Da Costa

Contagion (2011) Poster

Title: Contagion

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Written by: Scott Z. Burns

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Sanaa Lathan & Kate Winslet

Produced by: Gregory Jacobs, Michael Shamberg & Stacey Sher

As the film’s tagline says:

No one is

immune

to fear.”

Reel Talk - Contagion (2011)

November 30, 2021
by Brendan Da Costa

While Contagion makes little use of its powerful cast, its legacy now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is less about its artistic or technical achievements and more about the message it tries to impart.

 

Boasting a star-studded cast, Contagion follows healthcare professionals, government officials and everyday citizens as they struggle to cope with a global pandemic, holding out hope that the CDC can develop a vaccine before it is too late.

 

Contagion makes effective use of insert close-ups to demonstrate the spread of the virus. Of course, you’ll never actually see the virus wafting around in the air or hanging out on an ostensibly clean surface, but you will cringe and wince when some unwitting potential host touches that door handle or picks up that dirty glass—you’ll even recoil when two characters come close together to share an intimate moment.

“Even though our societies haven’t […] collapsed to the degree that they did in Contagion, the premise of the film should sound familiar…”

It’s an effective method for showing that we live in a tactile world where we are constantly flirting with viruses and other pathogens.

 

Director Steven Soderbergh—of Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Trilogy repute—opted to give us spectacle over intimacy. Soderbergh made more use of disaster scenes like a deserted airport, desolate streets and mass graves than he did of his cast, perhaps in an effort to make the virus the central character. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel like the talented actors in this film are wasted. But in the context of 2020, this film is not about its cinematic merits.

 

Even though our societies haven’t—and are highly unlikely to—collapsed to the degree that they did in Contagion, the premise of the film should sound eerily familiar as we continue to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Terms like “social distancing”, “isolation”, “quarantine” and “R-naught” crop-up with enough frequency to make your ears stand up, if for no better reason than we’ve been trained in recent weeks to listen attentively when we hear them. Frankly, there isn’t much in Contagion to separate its fiction from today’s fact. Where it does slightly miss the bullseye is attributable entirely to the fact that this film was made almost a decade ago… a veritable aeon in the 21st century.

With so many parallels, some might want to call Contagion—and other films, books and television shows like it—prophetic. The truth, however, is that Contagion is just a well-researched story about a universal and ubiquitous fear, one that is always present in human society even when we aren’t presented with its reality.

 

The world has faced enough epidemics and pandemics in the past for organizations like the CDC and the WHO to develop well-documented protocols and standards should another virus or bacteria wander out of its hiding place. Ultimately, all that writer Scott Z. Burns had to do was ask healthcare and government officials what their response would be in the events of, perhaps, the most predictable—or at least the most inevitable—kind of natural disaster.

While it’s fun to imagine that someone out there had a moment of clairvoyance or divination that resulted in a major motion picture, Contagion would best be viewed as a motion picture manual.

 

For all that it could have prepared us as average citizens for coping with a viral outbreak—as stock markets tumble, people scramble to buy toilet paper and flock to hospitals for a cough and fever—Contagion’s most significant lesson comes from its tagline, “No one is immune to fear.”