Nothing busts canons quite like living in interesting times. In our ongoing Inflection Point series, we look back at the films that have taken on new relevance due to our ongoing cultural and political upheaval. Some beloved, some undiscovered, these titles deserve newfound consideration as film criticism evolves to meet the moment.
If you grew up on a steady diet of post-apocalyptic cinema and video games, the past few weeks must feel like a bad piece of fan-fiction. As the COVID-19 virus (commonly referred to as “coronavirus”) has spread across the globe, we’ve witnessed stories that seem ripped from the screenplays of low-budget horror. One family in St. Louis broke quarantine to attend a father-daughter dance and might have infected an entire school district. A Catholic priest in Washington D.C. might have spread the virus to hundreds of church-goers. Italy is entirely shut down. If we as a society are only as strong as our weakest link, then these stories should be enough to give everyone pause.
The idea that a pandemic is best understood through snippets of chaos is one of the key ideas behind “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s medical thriller that depicted the worldwide spread of a deadly virus. It seems that every publication in the country is writing about “Contagion” these days, and for a good reason. The 2011 release has quickly climbed the VOD charts in recent months, recently cracking the Top 10 on Apple’s iTunes store. And unlike some movies that barter in vague social anxieties, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns created something that feels eerily prescient for our current situation.
In “Contagion,” health organizations across the world are forced to fend for themselves as humanity scrambles to find a cure for the MEV-1 virus. Nearly one-quarter of people who come in contact with the MEV-1 virus succumb to its effects, and it is not long before a global panic breaks out. As the film progresses, the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization first attempt to contain the illness, then mitigate its effects, before finally focusing entirely on the creation of a vaccine. Moving forward days and even weeks at a time, we witness the near-collapse of western civilization through the eyes of the survivors and the medical professionals who search tirelessly for a cure.
The scariest scenes in “Contagion” are the ones where nothing happens. Soderbergh wastes no time in establishing how easy it is for a virus to spread through surface-to-surface contact. In the film’s opening minutes, the camera lingers on a bowl of airport peanuts in Chicago; a subway rail in Hong Kong; a photography portfolio in London; and a door handle in the suburbs of Minneapolis. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between these everyday objects and the thousands of things we touch every day. Soderbergh has described “Contagion” as a “horror film,” and he’s not wrong: all the best horror movies limit the time the killer spends on camera.
But if “Contagion” is a horror film, it’s one filtered through Soderbergh’s distinct lens. The filmmaker’s preference for ensemble casts works to disguise the cold efficiency of the virus. Characters often die in disaster movies, but these deaths are usually rational, sacrificial, and somewhat predicated on celebrity. This is not the case in “Contagion.” In the film’s first half-hour, we watch Patient Zero and her son die grotesque, terrifying deaths. We are also forced to come to accept that our protagonist — Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears — is doomed to become a statistic herself. Soderbergh uses his slew of recognizable faces to show the harsh realities of a worldwide epidemic: it is far more likely that each person watching “Contagion” will end up in a mass grave than be blessed with natural immunity.
If the deaths come as a surprise, the systematic unraveling of society does not. While the mortality rate of COVID-19 is sobering enough in its own right — especially for those 60 and older — much has been written about the damage it poises to our infrastructure. The lack of hospital beds, the shortages of essential medical supplies and foodstuffs, and the unique danger this pandemic poses to frontline medical personnel have all been discussed by journalists and medical professionals alike. These are not new challenges, of course. In 2018, the Center for Disease Control’s official blog highlighted many of these factors in its centennial look back at the 1918 H1N1 virus. But few films capture the links between pandemic and supply chain failures at “Contagion.”
And while many critics compared Soderbergh’s film to the glut of disaster movies from the 1970s, there’s a lack of sentimentality to “Contagion” that makes it especially difficult to watch. Perhaps the most damning element of this is the lack of surprise. In one scene, a character is notified that the nurse’s union has gone on strike, leading to a shortage of trained medical personnel across the country. Rather than expressing outrage or fear, Laurence Fishburne’s Dr. Ellis Cheever notes that all they are doing is putting more healthy people next to sick people. There are few grand gestures or moments of bravery captured onscreen. The disease spreads and kills until a vaccine is created.
Even the parts of the film that seemed the most exaggerated in 2011 have proved prescient a decade later. After my initial viewing of “Contagion,” I suspected that Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede would eventually be seen as one of the film’s weaker points. With digital journalism coming into its own at the beginning of the decade — ProPublica, for example, became the first online publication to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 — the character of Krumwiede seemed to suggest a type of would-be media personality that would soon go extinct. Instead, here we are in 2020, and Alex Jones has raised the price of a one-year supply of “storable food products” from $1,443.50 to $2,987.00 as fears of COVID-19 spread.
“Contagion” might not be the movie that we want to watch in the middle of an ongoing health crisis. Still, it offers us perhaps cinema’s most sobering look at the challenges humanity will face against diseases and biological attacks. In foreshadowing the spread of a virus like COVID-19, Soderbergh has provided us with a handy bedtime story to help us process our feelings of fear and anxiety. Most of all, though, “Contagion” should remind us that survival is a matter of chance. Most of us will not be the pocket of humanity rebuilding in the rubble of society; instead, we’ll be the half-recognized faces in the pile of corpses. So self-quarantine, wash your hands, and please, for the love of God, stop touching your face.