Back in 2011, when we were all transfixed by such thoughtful genre works as Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, I think many of us overlooked a very impressive SF film.
I’m talking about Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Its release was accompanied by a generous amount of publicity and decent reviews, but it was soon lost in the tide of bigger and stupider films. That year, if you weren’t enjoying the wistful charms of The Artist or Midnight in Paris, you were quite possibly watching Kung Fu Panda 2 or The Smurfs.
I finally caught up with Contagion the other day. The reviews generally likened it to disaster movies of the 1970s, but it seems to me that the film also belongs to a tradition of SF films which seek to trouble the viewer with convincing accounts of potential Armageddon.
Back before Star Wars changed the movie-going world, one of the main functions of science fiction cinema was to remind us of all kinds of ways in which humanity might meet its end. Some of those possible demises were more plausible than others. (We seem to have dodged the attack of the mutant carnivorous rabbits envisaged in Night of the Lepus, 1972, for instance.) And some threats were clearly symbolic rather than real. The risk of falling victim to a Martian invasion, or being attacked by giant radioactive ants, was always fairly low, but those threats were potent place-holders for real concerns about a third world war or the risks of nuclear weaponry.
The threat of nuclear destruction informed a large number of the SF movies I grew up on, whether those films were at the plausible end of the spectrum like On the Beach (1959), or further out like the Planet of the Apes cycle.
In the 21st century, the still-present fear of nuclear weapons exists alongside newer worries about environmental destruction or the possibility of a virus laying waste to mankind. But whereas atomic dread informed scores of movies, these more recent threats have only had a couple of major movies each. Maybe we really don’t want to think about them.
The premise of Scott Z. Burns’s script for Contagion is simple. A deadly virus that started in Hong Kong has reached Minneapolis and Chicago. It’s going to spread very quickly, through everyday coughs, sneezes and touches, and there is no known cure.
If you haven’t seen the film, this is where I’d advise you to stop reading, after making a note of my recommendation that you really should get around to it. It would be hard to discuss its strengths without spoilers.
Contagion unsettles the viewer in its opening moments, by way of the same trick Hitchcock used in Psycho. It kills a big star. Gwyneth Paltrow, as a businesswoman just back from Hong Kong, is dead before the first reel has unfolded. Her young son dies soon afterwards. Her husband, Matt Damon, seems to have survived exposure to the virus, but by now the audience thinks this is a story that could go anywhere. Later in the movie, Kate Winslet as a brave epidemiologist contracts the virus and dies too.
Much of the film follows the efforts of government employees to control the spread of the virus and research a cure. If they react too hastily, they will spread panic. React too slowly and millions more will die.
Much of the film’s power comes from Soderbergh’s self-imposed rule that he would only show the wider consequences of the disease through the experience of the key characters. Where some film-makers would cut to news broadcasts relating the story of the virus’s progress around the world, Soderbergh and Burns stay with the experience of a small number of people. For that reason, it packs more of an emotional punch than the 1970s disaster movies that have been cited as an influence.
If this idea had been filmed in the 1970s, you can be sure the government departments in the story would have been busy covering up the truth about the virus. But one of the strengths of Contagion is that almost everybody is trying to do the right thing. The scientists and the Homeland Security officials (Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston) are all there to serve the public. Once, this view of officialdom might have looked naïve, but in today’s world, where people are so keen to see conspiracy everywhere, it looks refreshingly rational. For most of its running time, the film doesn’t have a villain. Even when one official takes an epidemiologist hostage in an effort to ensure his infected village will get a vaccine, he’s doing it out of desperation.
I say for most of its running time the film doesn’t have a villain, because I think the film does take one misstep. That’s in relation to Jude Law’s character, a blogger who perpetually decries official organisations and corporations, but who turns out to be secretly taking millions to promote someone else’s agenda. It’s an unnecessary twist. The real risk from the crazier citizen journalists in such circumstances is not that they are secretly corrupt, but that they can do untold harm by sincerely promoting voodoo medicine and conspiracy thinking.
Much “serious” science fiction is based on known science plus a bit of intelligent speculation. The unsettling thing about Contagion is that pretty much all the science in the movie has already been established in the real world. The element of speculation is just about the circumstances that might lead to such a virus appearing and getting out of control. For that reason, you might argue that Contagion isn’t really SF at all. But it’s certainly a resonant, disturbing account of a real threat to human existence.
As the film ends, you might joke weakly about wanting to go and scrub your hands. But the humour may be covering an uncomfortable awareness of how vulnerable we all are to natural forces that basically want us dead.