Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011) – A new epidemic causes panic across the globe as the Centre for Disease Control work tirelessly towards a cure.
While all too sprawling, Contagion offers a grounded and effective study in the spread of disease and fear.
In face of a worldwide epidemic, connectivity may be the death knell of civilisation. The Internet allows for the unbridled barrage of theories and speculations, in a modern world that places little trust in the mainstream media or even the government administration.
Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) witnesses first-hand what rumours can do. After his wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son fall victim to the fatal MEV-1, he finds leaving the city an impossible task. Panic, fuelled by false news, has left supply shelves empty and all roads in chaos.
Contagion presents a realistically dire situation in face of a seemingly incurable pandemic, never shying away from the horrors of the stricken. The bleak imagery, especially in death, proves striking.
Villainy wears a face in rumour-wielding Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger who rides the wave of conspiracy theories for his own gain. On goes his deplorable ploy, dramatised to remarkable effect. But of course, his act is understated. In the real world, the army of opportunistic adversaries puts on more than a few masks across the global web.
Fear resultantly spreads like an epidemic itself. First-hand responders are not immune. After the death of his colleague Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) loosens the tight lid and warns his fiance to escape the hot zone.
This sparks an investigation by the US Public Health Service, fronted by Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston). But the film spends little time on politics. It surges forward with urgency and goes onto explore societal class divide.
In Hong Kong, Sun Feng (Chin Han) realises that his small village may not get the vaccination in time due to the inequity in medical access. He resorts to desperate measures, kidnapping WHO epidemiologist Dr Orantes (Marion Cotillard) for leverage.
Multiple plot lines are set in motion, tackling all possible consequences at once. Director Steven Sodenbergh’s ambition is admirable, but ultimately feels misguided. Persistent pacing leaves little room for rumination or emotional impact.
His sprawling film tirelessly jumps from one character to another, spreading their stories too thin. The lack of precision also means fewer details, which leaves several arcs underdeveloped or incomplete. Even so, there remains an unsettling resemblance to real-world pandemics of the past. One does not have to look far to recall the SARS crisis (which gets a mention in this film), or the recent West Africa Ebola outbreak just three years ago.
Despite considerably short scenes, an impressive ensemble cast portrays the far-reaching consequences of a virulent disaster with strong credibility. And history knows how many times we have come close to this. Showing just how vulnerable the human race can be, Contagion lays ground for veritable tension and effectively brings a bout of jitters for a potential future wave.