Cinematic themes featuring a world done in by some uncontrollable force – Godzilla, meteorites, nuclear weapons and, in the case of Contagion, virus, are not new. Although, Contagion does take our collective fear of a pandemic and brings that fear home in a very realistic manner. This threat is not wrapped in the guise of some cute-faced monkey (think Hot Zone) but rather it arrives on a beautiful (if unfaithful) host from it its Asian swine/bat origin. This virus is off and running throughout the world population in the first half hour of the film and, until the end, we can only guess at the virus’s epicenter or day-one of its cycle. The reality of such a disaster coming as the peace, love and happiness generation enters old age seems deceptively unimportant and begs the question, what remains of this world for Matt Damon, Kate Winslett and Gwynneth Paltrow – the beautiful representatives of the generation to follow? Well, death of course (for some). According to Dr. Paul A. Offit of Medscape Today, Steven Soderberg’s production has not sacrificed “science in favor of drama.” Contagion’s realism carries a cautionary note. And while I didn’t leave the theatre in immediate search of hand sanitizer I did attempt to count the times I rubbed my eyes.
Contagion did what a good movie should do – educate. As part of the scientifically uninitiated, I came away understanding rates of viral spreading. The ubiquitous numbers and web-like connections were made comprehensible by putting in perspective this virus’s contagion rate compared to diseases like polio and influenza. I learned too the role of fomites. A fomite is a means of transmission – that is – any contaminated surface or inanimate thing, (clothing, dishes, doorknobs, telephones, money) once touched, can and did permit rapid spread of this deadly virus. Soderberg’s montage of Paltrow’s final days drive home the tragic consequences of social and cultural obliviousness. I saw a side of Paltrow that I never want to see again. Contagion’s backdrop of boarded up houses, lanes of traffic heading one way, and lines of ragged, cold and hungry people waiting for an untested vaccine speaks for itself. One scene provided frightening detail of how society will break down in the face of hopelessness. When the long line of sick and healthy alike are told the allotment of an herbal remedy has been exhausted, it comes as no surprise that people, utterly deprived of hope, will return to the sewers of their baser instincts. Pharmacies are smashed and looted, grocery stores hold only what can’t be consumed, and people are killed as their homes are raided. Even the home of Laurence Fishburne, the CDC official, is broken into by masked looters looking for any of the vaccine. It is here I wondered about the total breakdown of authority. If the breakdown was as complete as implied why would these trespassers wear masks? Old habits die hard I suppose.
The virus gets top billing in Contagion with Winslett, Paltrow, Damon, Fishburne and Elliot Gould doing the grunt work of surviving, dying and breaking all the rules to find the antidote. Dr. Sanjay Gupta offers a bit of realism as he interviews Fishburne, the CDC official thrown under the bus for being human. Fishburne’s character finds its foil in Alan Krumwiede played by Jude Law. Law’s character comes with a penchant for promotion of the pseudo-cure Forsythia. The connection between the idea of Forsythia as a cure and the idea of Forsythia as a money making tool is a bit fuzzy made so by Law’s paranoid and heart-felt acting on behalf of the unproven homeopathic remedy. Law’s political paranoia comes dressed as passionate righteousness in the form of his blog “Truth Serum.” This is Glenn Beck territory sans the tears. Law’s character irresponsibly yells government conspiracy and his legions fall in line lock-step with the theory. Contagion holds important questions that, in the case of real Krumwiede-type citizens, should be answered now – not in a time of widespread panic. Is blogging journalism? Or is blogging, as one character implies, just speech with punctuation? Also, and most importantly for professional journalists, is it unfair to expect some sense of journalistic propriety here? Krumwiede has millions of followers and he is, in a sense, screaming fire in a crowded theatre. Conceivably, millions of lives depend on his relationship with the written word. Alas, for Krumwiede, blogging is simply a narcissistic venture that smothers all truth.
There was hope to be had by the end of Contagion– even as panic dances on the slender fomite thread of ignorance. Trust in science is a huge message here. Today, trust in human nature may seem at an all-time low, but one cannot rule out the potential reality of individual humans willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice for the furtherance of the species. I left the theatre rubbing my eyes and considering how rapidly society has changed. In my day, a half million people could gather, share music and fluids and no pandemic. Now, a forest is disturbed and an ancient virus is vexed to new life.