I took in Steven Soderbergh’s Outbreak remake, Contagion, over the weekend. Actually, I need to stop calling it a remake of Outbreak. Contagion has more in common with Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic than it does the Dustin Hoffman/Rene Russo Ebola soap Outbreak. Overall I enjoyed Contagion. It’s a tight thriller that achieves moments of suspense and real-life “this could totally happen” feelings. You all know my obsession with preparing for the zombie apocalypse—the events of Contagion are actually way more likely to happen and now I’m afraid of touching my face, doorknobs, and other people.
The first act of Contagion focuses on the spread of the disease, a previously-undiscovered strain of virulent flu. As in Traffic, Contagion has a big cast working in plots all over the globe using different color schemes (China is shot in red/gold tones, the Midwest in blue/gray, Atlanta in ochre/blue). We begin on “day 2” and see mining-company executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) in an airport on her way home from a trip. We later learn she has been to China to break ground on a new factory. The camera lingers on the spaces around Beth and the things she touches—a bowl of peanuts at a bar, the glass she drinks from, et cetera. Throughout act one, we get similar shots of doorknobs, the poles on buses, cell phones—all the things we commonly touch throughout our days.
Within the first week, Beth and her son are dead. At the CDC in Atlanta, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is tracing the beginnings of the outbreak. He sends Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) on her first solo trip into the field, to Minneapolis, where Beth and her child have died, and Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) may be infected. At the same time, scenes cut back to China where a young man (Tien You Chui) in tenement housing falls ill and dies. A London model collapses, and a man on a bus in Japan strokes out. Throughout this act, we’re informed of the population of each of these areas. I liked that Soderbergh left it to us to understand how easily this outbreak will turn into an epidemic, given how densely populated the world is now. We see one sick man in Tokyo along with a card flashing “36.6 million” and we can immediately infer that this will mean a significant reduction in that number.
Throughout this initial period of outbreak, online journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, sporting teeth more fucked-up than I thought his were) is tracking the progress of this new virus. He can’t get the San Francisco Chronicle to run his story, though, because he’s a blogger. There was an odd, out of place recurring theme about how blogging isn’t legitimate (one character compares it to graffiti). This annoyed me for three reasons: 1) I’m a blogger, 2) it makes Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns (The Informant!) seem hilariously out of touch, and 3) it just didn’t fit in this movie. They made more hay with the angle that Krumwiede was a freelancer and the paper no longer had a budget to pay freelancers. Just stick to that. Carping that bloggers aren’t “real journalists” is so 2006.
Entering act two, the disease is spreading. The World Health Organization has dispatched and epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) to China to trace Beth’s movements there and determine the point of origin. It becomes clear that Beth is Patient Zero and as they unravel her movements in China, it is equally clear this is where the virus originated. However, Chinese officials are not anxious to have this news made public. They think the Americans and the WHO are colluding to make China look bad. Political interests grow—in Minneapolis Dr. Mears is dealing with local government officials who are worried about who is paying for the quarantine center even as thousands of people are dying and hospitals are overwhelmed. Krumwiede gets sucked into some kind of confusing scheme with a hedge fund that involves promoting a “cure”, Forsythia. This plot point was a bit confusing to me. Contagion does not balance its multiple plots as well as Traffic did, floundering a bit in act two to account for some of the goings-on.
Now we see images of abandonment—trash overrunning cities, empty airports and health clubs, looting and vandalism. States are implementing quarantines and panic is rising as more and more fall sick. The death toll starts hitting the millions. Mitch Emhoff turns out to be immune but his daughter might not be, so he quarantines her at home as he struggles to find food. Back in China, the WHO doctor gets kidnapped so that the remaining members of a village can get moved to the “front of the line” for treatment. Act three brings us the hunt for the cure. At the CDC, Dr. Huxtall (Jennifer Ehle) is burning through clinical trials (and rhesus monkeys) trying to find a viable cure. At one point, they find the virus has mutated into an “AIDS complex”. This is never explained nor does it seem to matter past this one frame. Issues of big pharmaceuticals and political maneuvering arise as they struggle to manufacture a vaccine.
I would have liked Contagion a little more if in Krumwiede’s story line they dropped the whole hedge fund/Forsythia thing and went right to this lone journalist probing big-pharm’s involvement in this kind of vaccine race. I’m a sucker for conspiracy theories and I do kinda believe there may well be a cure for AIDS (if not now, soon) that we’ll never know about because the pharmaceutical companies make so much money on the treatments. I feel like there were sharper indictments and observations to make here, rather than in the blogger’s moral downfall. Contagion isn’t really about the individual people but about how the virus affects (infects) them. Watching this one guy compromise himself is less interesting than watching the struggle to find a cure.
Overall, I thought Contagion was good. It’s thought provoking—we should all be more circumspect with our hygiene—and it’s a realistic look at what would happen if such a viral outbreak occurred (and the epidemiologists do think we’re due for a global pandemic, thus the flu panic every fall). The storytelling is effective, with the most compelling plots following Mitch and his daughter and the ill-fated Dr. Mears. The acting is solid throughout and even small roles are filled by good actors (John Hawkes appears in a glorified cameo and Sanaa Lathan has a small part as Cheever’s wife). My biggest problem with Contagion is that while it’s good, it isn’t haunting. A movie like this should stick with you long after it’s over and it’s a little too easy to shake off the message and warning of Contagion. The biggest takeaway is that if Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t a cheating cheater, all those nice people wouldn’t have died.