The 1995 Dustin Hoffman starrer ‘Outbreak’ probably set a landmark for all epidemic/pandemic movies made thereafter. Contagion as a movie of that genre may or may have not surpassed the calibre of ‘Outbreak’, but certainly has succeeded in creating an identity of its own.
A lethal communicable virus spreads across the globe, causing scores of death, while the health departments try to contain it; pharmaceutical companies try to leverage it and the affected try to come to terms with it. That’s precisely the story of Contagion. The appeal of the movie though lays not much in the story as it does in the story telling.
A Global Operations Manager of an American Company Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), the unwitting host of a fatal airborne virus is seen chewing peanuts at a Hong Kong airport, waiting for a flight. Beth is unaware that like a Midas effect, everything she touches gets infected with the virus she is carrying. Soon in an ill-fated turn of events, people from all over the world begin to suffer from coughs, nose bleeds, collapse and immediately die. It is later shown in the movie through security tapes that the first recorded deaths were of the people who came in direct or indirect contact with Beth.
The quiet yet alarming infection slowly creeps its way into human nerves through door knobs, busses, papers and cups, unnoticed by the characters in the film. All they can notice is an escalating death toll with every passing day.
There are several human sub plots – a man who discovers his wife’s infidelity while he is mourning over her death (played by Matt Damon), a pharmaceutical company hoping to mint money out of the crisis, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer who has to convince local bureaucrats to commit resources while herself becoming infected, a scientist who identifies a potential vaccine and inoculates herself for a human subject test, World Health Organization epidemiologist who is held hostage for a batch of the vaccines.
All of the characters have been treated with balanced empathy and make for the drama that a story like this requires to make it human. The film's usage of concepts like "R0" and "fomites," and genuine challenges like not having a state-of-the-art technology to mass produce vaccines depicts how well-illustrated the script is.
There’s also the conspiratorially-minded freelance journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) who creates uproar and public mayhem by releasing startling information on his blog; and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is torn between the right and the wrong. These two characters in particular bring out the multiple dynamics of an epidemic situation - the sufferers and the profiteers, the survivors and the favored, the powerful and the powerless. Both the characters in their own way bring a few surprises to the story by slowly exposing their intents and instincts.
The most intelligent aspect of the movie is probably its beginning - it starts from 'Day 2' rather than 'Day 1'. This may strike as confusing to many, because of the initial lack of information; but as the story progresses, the plot gets clearer, saving a few surprises till the end.
The background score really adds to the grim tale that Contagion is. Despite a multi star cast, the film remains plot centric and not a star centric high intensity drama, kudos to casting for roping in such a great cast and to Soderbergh for utilizing them so well. Kate Winlset, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle stand out with their subtle yet potent presence. Cinematography can’t be claimed to be extraordinary but certainly sets the paranoid mood. Certain scenes like Beth’s autopsy are visually disturbing and may not be suitable for children. Frequent close-ups of people touching objects like glasses, cell phones, credit cards, door knobs and elevator buttons manage to instil that arcane paranoia that film makers strive to create. The scenes leave one with the horrific feeling that you could be the next victim.
Overall, Contagion is a brilliant screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns), well-executed by Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh, known for his distinct story telling, makes the audience realise yet another time, why his movies enjoy both commercial and critical triumph. The treatment of the movie however, screamed out “TV movie” rather than a theatrical release. What was the purpose of a multi-star cast still beats me when Contagion could have catapulted many Television actors to BAAFTA and EMMY.
-by Parmita Borah