Contagion (2011)

Reflexively-compelling in explicative pandemic-design & cognizance doubling as a modernized parable of natural-crisis – with heavyweight Cotillard led cast, weighty medical-and-societal themes, *pure* bioterror. 8.8/10.

Plot Synopsis: When Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to Minnesota from a Hong Kong business trip, she attributes the bizarre malaise she feels to jet lag. Two days later, Beth is dead and doctors tell her shocked husband (Matt Damon) that they have no idea what killed her. Soon, many others around the world begin to exhibit the same symptoms, and a global pandemic explodes. Doctors, epidemiologists, and the CDC try to contain the lethal microbe, but society begins to collapse as a blogger (Jude Law) fans the flames of paranoia & mistrust.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*


From One Viral Outbreak To Another

Revisiting 2011’s Prophetic Film ‘Contagion’ In The Wake Of 2020’s COVID-19 Pandemic

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March, 2020: A pandemic named COVID-19 is sweeping the world, having infected 685,000 people and claimed 32,000 lives across 203 nations in just a few short months – with the worst predicted yet to come. A betacoronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) with multiple strains originating from bats, what could’ve been a containable outbreak at its epicenter: Hubei Province, China was covered-up for months by government officials and thus spread as far as the East Coast of the United States. Metropolitan Cities have been turned into ghost towns, mandatory curfews and shutdowns of all major non-essential jobs strictly enforced by local governments, and self-isolation/social-distancing the new norm – I have not seen people in-person for weeks now. Naturally, the intensity of this cabin fever has turned many to the movies – with one going viral in recent weeks for its eerie similarity/propheticism: 2011’s Contagion. Modeled after outbreaks like SARS, 1918 Spanish Flu, and H1N1, the film’s virus MEV-1 is remarkably alike the real one that has arisen in COVID-19: a viral strain originating from bats in China amidst societal murmurs of science-antitrust and ineptly handled by officials putting economics and pride/materialism ahead of the well-being of citizens. Beyond the startling feeling like you’re living a movie or watching a documentary of your experience in real-time, Contagion is a fantastic film in its own right – with loads of subtext, bioterror, and social commentary that hits even harder in 2020 than it did a decade ago. Reflexively-compelling in explicative pandemic-design & public health/epidemiology cognizance doubling as a modernized parable of natural-crisis, Contagion is the one of the best – and certainly the most realistic – pandemic films to-date, boasting a heavyweight Cotillard-led cast, weighty medical & societal themes, and *pure* biological terror.

Bioterror In Purest Form

MEV-1: A Virus Deadly Enough To Kill 26M & Make A Medical Examiner Say ‘Oh My God’

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The biggest intangible any film named Contagion must have is biological horror – the kind that shakes you to your bones and makes you question the prospect of ever leaving your house again without a holster of hand-sanitizers locked-and-loaded like pistols. Luckily, that’s exactly what we’re forced to bear witness to: a fictional virus so deadly, it makes Medical Examiners step back and say ‘Oh My God.’ MEV-1 is a striking biological organism, boasting an insane R0 of 2-4 and 30%+ mortality rate – turning host’s insides into mush and setting off encephalitic seizures straight out the annals of our worst nightmares. The film begins with a cough before we even see any visuals to accompany it, and packs tons of shots that will make even the most weathered horror-junkie or surgeon squeamish: blank death stares, dried vomit, lifeless corpses, violent convulsions, obliterated sulci, and scalped brain bits elicit pure existential dread of these microorganisms here millions of years before us. Throughout Contagion, the horror is shown through a primal imagism of decay – whether it’s the husks of people turned lifeless green and black from the inside-out by-virus or resultant deterioration of society. Riots on Pharmacy RX’s for the last few droplets of perceive antidote, riots and looting turning the small family-business that summarize The American Dream into smoldering ashes a fire dept. is too busy elsewhere to even bother putting out, break-ins, murder, & loss of all social order evoke a primordial atmosphere of survival/terror.

A Portfolio Of Due Diligence

A Masterclass Of Public Health/Epidemiological Cognizance – And One Of Cinema’s Most Scientifically-Accurate

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The triumph of Contagion is equally in its public health/epidemiological cognizance – one of cinema’s most scientifically-accurate portrayals ever on the topic. A diagrammatic canvas is laid-out before us of how a virus spreads between people and across vast swathes of the planet, from London to NYC to Hong Kong to Rome to Los Angeles to New Delhi and everywhere in-between. The filmmakers wanted to tell a realism-grounded story of what the daddy of all modern viral outbreaks would look like – withstanding the 1918 Spanish Flu that infected almost 1/3 of the world’s population and Bubonic Plague that killed over 100,000,000+ aided by poor sanitation practices in comparatively-archaic medical practices. The virus’ origins (as we’ll discuss later in that breathtaking ending) are elegantly-portrayed and perfectly-plausible in how a pandemic could start. The CDC’s dispatch of foot soldiers from the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) is 100% accurate and stems from the real-world organization of the same title, filmed on-location at my alma mater: Emory University. The film’s medical phenomena and translation of a virus like MEV-1’s biochemical structure and effects like encephalitis are realistic too, as I can tell you having a B.Sc in Biology and Ivy League-history before going to Medical School myself. Even the terminology and scientific linguistics of Contagion are based in authentic language of people in the field, as I can attest – like ‘R0’ as an indicator of the reproductivity of a virus, ‘fomites’ as touch-points serving as transmission vesicles between people, hazmat suits and respirators modeled after real CDC ensembles, mass graves to prevent further infections, Barry Marshall’s Nobel Prize-winning self-vaccination with H. pylori to prove its cause of gastric ulcers, and solving the puzzle of the ‘index patient’ who begat the entire pandemic (thanks, Gwyneth Paltrow!).

The Performances & Arc-Structure

A Heavyweight Cotillard-Led Cast & Canvas Multi-Narrative, Reflexive Characterization

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On the subject of Gwyneth Paltrow – the film’s performances and multi-narrative characterization structure make it one of the more intriguing and auterist pieces of cinema of 2011. Characteristic of director Stephen Sonderbergh’s ‘hyperlink cinema’ style, the film weaves many separate arcs together across its screenplay – each introducing new characters, storylines, and facets of the pandemic brought to life by A-list celebrities it doesn’t even need (but is nice to have as a bonus). Marion Cotillard is the show-stealer, bringing her signature indie charm, feminine elegance, and sly demeanor to epidemiology and a Chinese village she’s forced to become matriarch to. Laurence Fishburne is equally as phenomenal as director of the CDC battling ignorance, false pretenses, misinformation, governmental restrictions/hierarchy, and a public losing its health-and-trust. Kate Winslet’s strong, capable Dr. Mears is a fine characterization of the devotion of public health servants even in the face of inevitable tragedy, Matt Damon’s Mitch Emhoff a heartbreaking father and everyday-guy coping with the loss of his wife and son in the same week, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff an aptly-materialistic and moral-less adulterer with the added bonus of starting a global pandemic out of negligence. Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede is foundational to the film’s events posing relevant and important questions about the nature of news and journalism before complicating the moral canvas out of self-interest alike the same subjects he criticizes, & there are big celebrity cameos from prestigious neurosurgeon + CNN-cameo Dr. Sanjay Gupta, M.D. to Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as U.S. Attorney General.

The Deterioration Of Society

A Cinematographical Portraiture Of Isolationism, Obsessions With The Hands, Existential Intrigue, & Meta-References

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The deterioration of society and reversion of social order Contagion paints through cinematography and imagism is primally-fascinating. In a few short weeks, we see crisp and bustling, overpopulated cityscapes around the world decay into ghost towns devoid of even a singular person – highlighting through contrast the existential crisis of a pandemic. There are stylistic sequences and idiosyncratic visual choices throughout – like consistent use of blurry/shaky-cam to give POV into the victim’s decaying sensory experience as the virus rots them from the inside out, montages splicing together fomites & transmissions between people, and a visual obsession with the hands. This is most brilliant of Soderbergh’s self-cinematography: a show-not-tell portrayal and thematic parallel of just how active & interactive our hands are at any given moment of life; the perfect vehicle of transmission for a virus. Throughout diverse location settings from the grocery store to casinos to coffee shops, Contagion showcases completely-normal and accurate things we do like moving items into our cart, rolling dice passed between people, or handing someone their coffee.. all given a new light in the face of a pandemic, turning everyday events into horror in pure Hitchcockian-homage. There are also cheeky hidden homages to filmic history – such as the hazmat suits used being purposely-boisterous orange and exact-lookalikes to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’s, likely to symbolize the mysterious field of virus and microorganisms.

Prophet vs. Profit

Brilliant Social Commentary On Sociological Themes, Medicine/Public Health, Ethics, Man’s Nature, Govt., Journalism, & Economics

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Prophet vs. Profit. The social commentary of Contagion is what lifts it into the stratosphere as one of the most intellectually-resonant thrillers and biohorror films of recent years. Foremost is its assertion on the fragility of mankind and society – with a microorganism pulling away the proverbial guise of stability and elegance we’d like to think our civilization has fostered over centuries.. within a few short weeks or months. The barbarism and brutality with which it paints this rapid submersion into the depths of sin is quite shocking – violence, murder, stealing, and singular concern with my survival over that of our fellow man hypocritical to America’s omnipresent Christian/Biblical preaches that teach the opposite. Philosophical, psychological, & sociological weight are subtextualized through the B/C/D/E arcs of the film’s multi-narrative structure – Cotillard’s abduction by Chinese missionaries to save the few children left of their village and traditions, how or whether to negotiate with terrorists/extorters in governments, adultery-and-corruption & sin like Beth Emhoff’s that set off this pandemic, and inequality with engrained classism/racism/sexism/marxism saving crooked politicians & the rich/powerful over everyday citizens. In classic would-you-steal-bread-to-feed-your-family dilemma taught in 101 classes, the film poses ethical questions that hit differently in the context of a pandemic – when your latest social media post or bank account matters nothing in the face of threatened survival reverting us back to animalistic nature. Beyond these philosophical & ethical dilemmas is prize-worthy discourse on two major topics: medicine/public health (and its thanklessness/sacrifice) and the news.

Prophet vs. Profit

Brilliant Social Commentary On Sociological Themes, Medicine/Public Health, Ethics, Man’s Nature, Govt., Journalism, & Economics

Photo Courtesy Of: Warner Bros.

The celebration and unquestioning trust in Doctors as the best-and-brightest of the world back in the 1950’s/60’s colloquial ‘Golden Age of Medicine’ has now devolved into paranoiac chaos where anti-vaxxers spread hate and misinformation on the internet. A man with a portfolio of science-denial even got elected President of the United States back in 2016: Donald Trump. The film beautifully encapsulates this theme with brilliant meta-film quotes like “a plastic shark in a movie will keep people from going in the water, but a warning label on a pack of cigarettes [won’t]” and the entire arc of Dr. Mears having to fight with capitalistic fat-cats concerned only with $$$ over lives – Mears even dies metaphorically/physically giving to those in need by a blanket to a freezing man next to her to symbolize the service/saviorship missions of medicine and public health. The film’s discourse on news is equally-fantastic, through the lens of crude/outspoken blogger Alan Krumwiede in juxtaposition of the real news sites he tried to give the first information of MEV-1, but was rejected. Contagion’s characters write off the blogosphere as trivial and unimportant, but it was its grass-roots journalism & tenacious hunger/freedom that correctly identified the pandemic before the bigwig/ego-inflated hotshots of a proverbial NYT or Forbes did – costing millions of lives. The film poses questions like: is there a freedom that being unofficial gives that permits true journalism on the most important topics? Does success and status weaken hunger and efficacy? Krumwiede’s blog skyrockets in popularity and the film turns the tables in the most harrowing of ways – with the same reporter who originally-rejected Alan’s pandemic breaking-news getting deathly-infected herself and coming back to his doorstep begging for his self-reported cure Forsythia like-a-dog before dying on his doorstep. However, his toxicology comes back negative for any Forsythia or viral components – was he lying about having the virus, fabricating the cure as clickbait to keep his readers engaged and make millions, and spreading paranoia and government/CDC-mistrust and fear for trollish fun’s sake? Quite likely. The film’s tagline: ‘Nothing Spreads Like Fear’ plays off this theme of how vitally important true/accurate news is, especially-relevant in the ‘fake news era’ of the late-2010’s.

The Finale

A Fantastic Representation Of Viral Origins Loaded With Subtext & Parable On The Follies Of Mankind & Fragility Of The Natural World

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The final scene of Contagion is one of the best – and most commentary-loaded – I’ve ever seen. While lesser films might’ve tried to use words or give away the virus’ origins at the very beginning of the film, Sonderbergh makes us wait ’til the very last minute to paint a masterpiece biological/natural parable without even a single word – solely through visuals and imagism. We see a long cross-dissolve from the previous Prom Night scene to tropical flora and fauna juxtaposing a smooth soundscape of alt-rock and diegetic background noise of a jungle at night/twilight. This sibylline landscape is interrupted when a bulldozer razes the tranquil-natural scene, as the camera tracks its raucous movement to reveal the company’s logo on it to be AIMM Alderson – the company Beth Emhoff worked at and sent her to China on-business. The uprooting of these trees displaces bats nesting in their upper branches, and forces them towards a nearby town – wherein one secures a piece of fruit and nests to eat it on an open barn’s ceiling. It drops part of the fruit into a pig-pen beneath it, as one of the farm-pigs eats it – completing a cross-species transmission between two animals that ordinarily would have ~no environmental contact. As several of the pigs start to exhibit symptoms of sickness, they’re sold and shipped off to a city restaurant – where they are prepared for dinner. Just as they’re about to go in the oven, the chef is interrupted by one of the employees’ demands he take a picture with Beth Emhoff outside. As they’re posing for the picture, Beth shakes the chef’s hand for photogenicism’s sake – thus completing the proto-transmission of the virus to Beth (index-patient) as ‘Day 1′ appears beneath the happy-bystanders’ photo. The sequence packs tons to say about humanity, the environment, and society – more so in a 2.5-minute scene than some films do in 2 hours; a testament of world-class filmmaking. The scene portrays AIMM’s (& symbolically: humanity’s/corporations’) rapacious crimes against nature as the cause of the pandemic; the bat who was genetically-predisposed to having the virus in harmless symbiosis was forced towards the town from its natural habitat by our deforestation, & pig-fruit-cross a natural byproduct of that coercion.


A Lackluster Soundtrack Of Mismatched-Techno & Resolution-Deficit In Several Arcs

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Fateful irony/satire of the highest entertainment-value is that the first person to get infected with the cross-species mutated virus is an employee of the very company that caused its birth: AIMM’s Beth Emhoff, while also fitting in an added jab at mankind’s folly, negligence, and egotism ripe for the ‘Social Media Age’ – after all, it was Beth’s clout-handshake-pic that started ‘Day 1’. It’s a brilliant reversal of the predominant perspective many humans conceptualize: that nature and animals are to blame for things like pandemics and disease, with a modernized addition of 21st-century themes like globalization in food supply chains/international travel as well as psychological ramifications of the Social Media Age. We’ve run out of things to blame; Contagion’s sociological commentary frame the pandemic as clearly our fault and a byproduct of humanity’s perverse demolition of the environment, negligence/ego, and delicacy of natural order we interrupt. Flaws in Contagion include a lackluster score and deprivation of resolution in big arcs. The film’s soundtrack is all-over-the-place – a bizarre amalgamation of unrefined sounds that lacks an overarching motif or singularity in feel, bouncing from orchestral to cookie-cutter electronic sounds like a ping pong ball with no overarching plan. The main themes in the film are these synth-laden, messy/chaotic techno one that feel more apt for a kooky ’50’s sci-fi film and are ~laughably-mismatched to with a film presenting as dark a premise as a pandemic and deadly virus that kills a massive portion of the world’s population. The film also presents no resolution or explanation of what happened in its Krumwiede or Dr. Orantes/village arcs, two of the film’s most intriguing and important arc left bizzarely and inexplicably in narrative-purgatory.


The Best Pandemic Film Ever?

A Bioterror-ful, Epidemiologically-Astute, Commentary-Loaded, Reflexively-Fascinating, & Viscerally-Thrilling Sociological Piece

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Overall, Contagion is the one of the best films about a pandemic/viral outbreak to-date. It might be the best-ever, only rivaled by 1957’s far-different and more-metaphorical The Seventh Seal. A bioterrorized, epidemiologically-astute, commentary-loaded, primally-fascinating, & wildly-thrilling sociological piece & modern parable, it paints the horrors of human nature just as efficaciously as it does its microorganism’s. Despite a lackluster soundtrack and deprivation of arc-resolutions in several of its multi-narrative structure’s storylines, the film’s masterpiece ending scene alone cements it as a phenomenal piece of drama, public health, and medicine. A must-see glimpse into the entire socio-machine of a pandemic/apocalypse, it is one of the most intellectually-resonant films of the 21st-century – still, if not entirely more-applicable nearly-10 years later in the face of the real-world outbreak of 2020’s COVID-19 than at its comparatively-quiet 2011-release. Reflexively-compelling in explicative pandemic-design & public health/epidemiology cognizance doubling as a modernized parable of natural-crisis, Contagion is incredible, boasting a heavyweight Cotillard-led cast, weighty medical & societal themes, and *pure* bio-terror.

Official CLC Score: 8.8/10