“Contagion” Infects America With Paranoia: Viral Marketing and Viral Diseases in the 21st Century

The lovely Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonara Orantes of the World Health Organization

WARNING:  Read this contagious review at your own risk.  And it contains plot spoilers.

The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between that we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains, and each other.”  That’s easily the most recognizable piece of dialogue from the promotional footage for “Contagion”, a new global pandemic thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.  The film opens with a simple, almost lackadaisical montage of people doing everyday things:  People casually grabbing doorknobs.  People steadying themselves on poles in the bus.  People sipping from their drinks and shaking hands.  People even hugging for pictures.  But it’s all undercut by the uncomfortable zoom that focuses in on the physical contact.  All it takes is a casual graze to transmit germs, skin particles, or a freakish bacterial pathogen that mutates from the two dirtiest beasts in existence: pigs and bats. 

It all starts in Hong Kong.  Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a dapper businesswoman on her way home to suburban Minneapolis.  What she assumes to be jet lag worsens overnight and within hours she is feverish, seizing, and soon pronounced dead in the local hospital.  By the time her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) makes it home from the hospital after flipping out on the confused doctor, Beth’s son is dead as well.  Cases begin popping up all around the world as the death toll rises.  The disease spreads through fomite transmission, which basically means that if anyone so much as touches something that a sick person has then they probably are symptomatic within hours and dead in days.  Within three months, a billion people are sick.  Mitch is left with only his good heart to steer his stepdaughter through the deteriorating social quagmire of looting, break-ins, and riots, not to mention the monotony of self-imposed protective quarantine.

Mitch is the everyman trying to protect the last living member of his family, even if it means chasing away her over-eager boyfriend with a double-barreled shotgun.  You almost expect her to hate him for thwarting her romance (a la Juliet), to scream at him with tearstained cheeks, calling him a terrible parent who poops on love because he’s miserable, all before burying her face in the pillow and screaming.  But she doesn’t.  With mature understanding, quiet resolve, and much aplomb, she obeys, because this is literally do or die. This touching duo represents the emotional center for the film, but there is a lot going on.

As the American Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) struggle to identity the virus and develop a vaccination, we see members of both organizations working on a number of fronts.  Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a representative from the CDC sent to Minneapolis to assess and manage the outbreak.  Dr. Eillis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is Mears’ boss, the CDC big-wig who serves as the face of the government to the public.  The ensemble cast only continues with my personal obsession, the enchanting Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonara Orantes, a WHO epidemiologist sent to Hong Kong to investigate the origins of the disease.  Amongst and in-between these more prominent Hollywood names are a slew of other familiar faces with their own role to play against the mysterious plague, dubbed MEV-1.   My personal favorite lesser celeb is Demetri Martin, because even when he handles deadly diseases in a lab, I still find him absolutely hysterical.

As you might have gathered, there are almost too many plotlines to follow, which gives the movie a frenzied feel that really captures how society would react to a pandemic.  But whether it’s the attention to technological detail or the inevitable social meltdown, “Contagion” is grippingly realistic and undoubtedly the best film representation of a global pandemic to date, and the most scientifically accurate one to boot.

However, what really sets “Contagion” apart from the likes of “Outbreak” or any other disease flick is that it is uniquely of the twenty-first century.  One of the first victims to succumb to MEV-1 is an Asian commuter who dies after seizing on a bus.  Sure, some of his fellow commuters try to help him out with a timid pat on the arm as he convulses, but of course there’s that one guy who immediately whips out his cell phone to take a video of what’s going on.  Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an avid blogger and conspiracy theorist, is the first to declare this mysterious commuter death as a sign of a viral outbreak.  When his suspicions are confirmed within days, he posts on his blog and manipulates his newfound credibility to support a supposed cure for the disease with the financial backing of a pharmaceutical company.

Later, in a televised debate, Krumwiede accuses Dr. Cheever and the government of hoarding cures for themselves and keeping the public in the dark.  Dr. Cheever’s response is to point out that Krumwiede’s unfounded theories – which cause massive riots for the supposed miracle drug, forsythia – are every bit as dangerous as the disease itself.  It’s this kind of back-and-forth that really raises some provocative questions regarding how a viral outbreak of this magnitude would play out in the modern day sociopolitical sphere.  How honest would our government be with us?  How many businesses, pharmaceutical companies, and individuals could stand to benefit from such a pandemic and at what lengths would they go to make that profit?  Who do we trust when the you-know-what hits the fan: some angry British blogger or Morpheus?  What if “Contagion” itself is a government scare tactic (not my theory, but one I’ve heard nonetheless)?

When all’s said and done, “Contagion” is far from a simple pandemic thriller.  It’s smart, it’s frenetic, and most frightening of all: it could happen at any moment.  All it took in the film was for “the wrong bat to meet up with the wrong pig”.  One of the most literally chilling scenes takes place at the CDC headquarters, where Demetri Martin and another less comical scientist load the new vaccine for the virus into cryo-storage with the cures for SARS and H1N1.  As they walk out, we see about dozen similar canisters containing God knows what.  It really makes you appreciate the marvels of modern science.  As terrifying as the thought of a global viral pandemic is, the film provides us with the comforting counter-thought that with today’s technologies, we are infinitely more capable of handling whatever nature might throw at us.

Now go wash your hands and rub Purell all over your mouse and keyboard.

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