Let’s Talk About Movies: Contagion

“Contagion” is a movie about how the simplest occurrences lead to the most complex problems.  Although creators billed “Contagion” as a thriller, few thrilling moments can found within the actual plot.  

However, in the apparent simplicity of the film, a darker, more sinister complexity emerges.  And, the seemingly thrill-less plot leads to a haunting realization about the world around us.

We start with a loud cough set against a black screen on the second day of the outbreak.  Following a brief interlude between Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her ex-husband, with whom she carries on an affair, director Steven Soderbergh treats the audience to a montage beset with pulsing soundtrack.

The sequence is simple, without any spoken lines, we learn very quickly that the disease has spread throughout the world and the future does not look bright.  Shortly after the montage, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) finds himself in the hospital with his dead wife.  In this moment, Damon embodies the simplicity to complexity theme with a powerful portrayal.

Unable to grasp the situation, Mitch cries out to the doctor that they ate dinner together last night, how could she be dead?  She was just jetlagged following her trip to Hong Kong.  The doctor tells Mitch that the disease appeared to have syphilitic elements, a disease Mitch does not have.

But, it only gets worse from there.

Following a frantic call from the babysitter Mitch left with his son-in-law, Clark, Mitch races home to find Clark dead from apparently the same illness.  On a positive note, Mitch learns he carries immunity to the disease, a great benefit as he tries to protect his natural daughter throughout the remainder of the film.

Over the next few days, knowledge of the disease  spreads throughout the world.  As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization began working on a vaccine, world governments share little information with the public.

Within the next month, hysteria spreads faster than the disease and the darker elements of humanity emerge.  Sharing a common theme with “28 Days Later,” the disease ceases being the main threat; the real threat is people where societal rules and laws vanish.  While the government tries to maintain order, rampant looting, rioting and killing, become a mainstay in all metropolitan areas.

One person becoming ill and dying is a common occurrence, even today, but when as you continue adding simple elements to the equation, the picture becomes complex.  One death leads to public hysteria.

Fueling the unrest, non-traditional news outlets, which falsely proclaim themselves government watchdogs, spread misinformation for personal gain.  Leaving us to question: who watches the watchdogs?  Alan Moore might have a chuckle at that.

Creative editing and thoughtful camera work adds to the building tension surrounding the film.  Following the stories of well over a dozen characters, Soderbergh shows how complex the problem really is while giving more chutzpah to the story.  Simple acts of kindness lead to the downfall of many.

Telling the tales of this many characters is a double-edged sword, as some characters seemingly disappear with very little explanation.

By the end of the movie, we are left with one final sequence, which shows how with simple luck, the illness began.  Through the final simple, haunting image, another theme of the story becomes apparent – that being the reality of the situation.

Beset by popular a popular culture filled with wizards, vampires and zombies, the reality presented by the movie becomes chilling.  While taking this into consideration is very meta, it is interesting the atmosphere in which this movie premiers.

The technical elements of “Contagion” were superb in addition to a star-studded cast that lived up to their billing.  Although “Contagion” lacks many thrills during the movie, an eerie atmosphere gives the film a distinct appeal.  I highly recommend you check “Contagion” out.

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Final Grade: A-

Next Week: Drive