Contagion is a brutal, true-to-life account of a viral epidemic sweeping the globe. It focuses on transmission (you’ll think twice about the popcorn you’re sharing or the cinema door-handle as you leave) and the difficulties of handling the population as the death toll rises. The narrative is fast – we start on day 2 and skip quickly into days and months after the outbreak – and the excellent direction and attention to detail makes it one of the most believable end-of-the-world scenarios around.
The industry has seen a fair number of movies tackling the global pandemic subject in recent years. They’ve ranged from the lavishly Hollywood (I am Legend), to the creepy horror (28 Days Later) to the unashamedly comic (Zombieland). Contagion is the first truly believable film of this theme. Director Stephen Sodderberg has hit upon the reality of an epidemic and his research shows. He had the virus designed by a scientist so that even to an expert, it would be believable. It’s a nice bit of trivia, but also testimony to the attention to detail that pervades the film and ultimately gives it its credibility.
The focus of Contagion is not the gruesome effects of the disease or the psychological trauma of the victims but how the world deals with the rapid outbreak. We follow the people right at the top who have to step up and sort it out; the officials arguing over budget and media coverage, the scientists struggling to find a cure, the conspiracy theorists with a lot of influence. We see crime rise, the infrastructure crack and the models in GCSE ethics class become the decisions of real life. Soderbergh captures the grittiness of it all; those in charge are mostly working in the dark. He also instils a deep fear in his audience of how quickly the situation gains momentum and loses control.
Alongside this you see the best of human nature in some fierce individuals. The cast is well-balanced and there’s excellent acting from the likes of Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne and Elliott Gould. Despite a star-studded cast, the direction is nicely understated and the scarce emotional moments are engaging without excessive sentimentality.
Chilling, stark and ultimately terrifying, Contagion is an excellent depiction of a global epidemic. Be prepared to walk out more paranoid than when you came in and with a lingering sense of panic for yourself and your loved ones. The post-credit’s epilogue have it in a nutshell: ‘It’s not if, it’s when.’