We touch our face 2,000 to 3,000 times a day, according to Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, “The Reader”) in the recently released medical thriller, “Contagion.” This statistic makes the possibility of catching an airborne virus chilling, especially given how many objects we touch throughout the day—objects riddled with the germs of others.
The idea of an epidemic as a result of a foreign disease is the topic in “Contagion,” directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Haywire”). The outbreak of the disease begins with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, “Country Strong”) when she passes the disease to a number of people from around the globe after small physical interactions at a casino in Hong Kong.
As the days pass, more civilians contract the disease and a death toll begins to climb, alarming members of the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization. With the involvement of these organizations, we are introduced to Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne, “Predators”) of the Atlanta CDC, laboratory researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, “The King’s Speech”) and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, “Midnight in Paris”) of WHO.
The most interesting aspect of the film is its ability to create a realistic situation. As the disease continues to grow widespread, the film depicts the world going into a state of chaos. The streets are cluttered with garbage, and grocery stores are abandoned as people rush to get necessary items. Make-up is heavily used to separate those in good health and those sick, making the ill very pale and grotesque.
Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on noting the placement of the characters’ hands, specifically what objects they touch, as an indication that the object could now be a disease carrier.
Soderbergh also convinces audiences that the characters are living in scary and frightening times with certain stylistic elements. For instance, the sound of the film is mainly diegetic, but eerie and spine-chilling music is present through climatic points in the film.
The cinematography is also quite interesting. The camera often grabs shots of a computer screen, which, though not self-explanatory, are able to indicate the seriousness of the situation. During tense moments, there are often many close-ups of characters’ faces to point out their level of stress and frustration regarding the disease outbreak. The film also occasionally makes use of handheld camera in order to give the perspective of some of the sick characters.
Perspective is an important concept in this film; without it, the story would not have the same realistic foundation. Throughout the film, viewers see perspectives from doctors, the sick, government officials, lab researchers and even media personnel. With each perspective, audiences gain an understanding of everyone’s personal responsibility and attitude toward the situation. With each perspective, the film becomes more personable.
A small side plot line in the film involves Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, “Sherlock Holmes”), a popular blogger who insists the government cannot be trusted. Although the film could have survived without the small story, it poses an interesting question: At a time when everyone is so desperate, who can be trusted? Questions like this bring out the morality aspect of the film as characters mentally struggle over their moral obligations.
One character in particular that faces this struggle is Emhoff’s husband, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon, “The Adjustment Bureau”), who watches his wife and stepson die early in the film, and who, after learning he is immune to the disease, must protect his daughter. Although Mitch spends time in the film defending the weak, he puts his daughter as his first priority, eventually stealing a shotgun from an abandoned home across the street for protection. He keeps his daughter on lockdown to avoid any potential interaction with the disease. But, for her own sanity, he throws her a personal prom within their home, a charming scene at the end that serves as a sign of hope for characters and evokes the idea of progressing forward.
The narrative and stylistic elements of “Contagion” successfully manage to sketch a possibly realistic situation for the future. The film’s use of perspective and real-life organizations pose questions for an audience as to how they would handle such a situation. Unfortunately, as the film explains, there is no way of preventing a disease from being started; we can only prevent it from spreading. Using “Contagion” as an example, the task could be quite difficult.