Friday, February 3, 2012


[minor spoilers]

My friend came over with Contagion the other day, and I watched it with some trepidation. Normally I’m not a fan of these killer epidemic movies. Take my mild hypochondria out of the equation. Films like these tend to be negative, nihilistic, and anti-human. You know, there-is-no-god-but-Darwin and we’re all just frightened animals below the surface, who claw at each others throats when “civilization” collapses all around us.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Contagion is an intelligent treatment of the subject. Made with the full cooperation of the Center for Disease Control, it plays out almost as a police procedural, albeit one with incredibly high stakes, a clock that ticks too fast, and a superstacked deck of cards against mankind. Yes, there is negativity. Yes, there are riots and less-than-noble behavior. But there is also noble behavior, and the movie is not afraid to show it. It gives the viewer about equal doses of the good with the bad.

We start at Day 2 of the MEV-1 epidemic. Gwyneth Paltrow returning home to Wisconsin from a business trip to Hong Kong, unknowingly infected. By Day 4 she’s dead, after infecting her son, who has infected students at his school. Husband Matt Damon is strangely immune. However, Gwyn is a little bit unfaithful, and a brief unannounced stopover in Chicago has infected her old boyfriend. At the end of the week, not only are outbreaks spreading in Hong Kong, but also the Damon’s hometown and the Windy City.

Laurence Fishburne is a top doc at the CDC and tasked with handling the outbreak. He puts a subdued and unhappy Kate Winslet on the ground to start fighting the spread. Unsuccessfully, as we’re only twenty minutes into the movie. We see China’s struggles to contain the MEV-1, as well as a military response from our government.

One motif I noticed is having various characters exposit the death toll and the numbers infected. Through the first hour of the movie, these figures grow at an almost exponential rate. Somewhere towards the end of the movie a news reporter mentions “26 million dead.” Wow. Think about that.

There are brave doctors fighting for a cure (or even to grow the damn thing in a culture, that’s how shifty the virus is), and that’s where the heart of the movie resides. Moral ambiguities are addressed or hinted at, such as –

What do you do if the pharmacy has only 50 doses of vaccine, and you’re 70th on line?

What do you do if you work at the CDC and have access to the vaccine – does your family jump the line?

Do you break into the supermarket for canned goods? Do you return for that flatscreen teevee?

How ethical is the promotion of homeopathic remedies in a situation where there is no official, government-sanctioned vaccine?

Do you let your daughter within a hundred feet of any love-starved boy, knowing how contagious this, er, contagion is?

And lots more you can discuss with your family as you watch civilization die! It’s the feel-good movie of 2011!

No, I kid. I actually enjoyed thinking about the moral quandaries after the movie was over. But then again, they are not quandaries for me, for I have the teachings of Christ to guide me in such situations. (Uh, at least in theory ...) For those of a secular bent, the questions the movie raises may prove more troublesome.

There were some minor problems I had with the flick. Since we’re on religion, not a single man or woman of the cloth was portrayed. Nor were there any instances of prayer. I didn’t like the whole Kate Winslet situation; something just doesn’t sit right about it, though I admit it may work in the movie. And I question whether the power and the Internet would still be available six months into a global crisis such as the one portrayed. Being a film made in Hollywood, there was also the obligatory dig at capitalism.

About the disease itself, the infective ability seemed to fluctuate, depending on the circumstances, i.e., the next plot device required by the film. And how come nobody was draining Matt’s blood to find out why he’s immune? Or at least flying him to a lab with other seeming genetic lottery winners for testing!

However, two scenes made the movie for me. First, the final scene. Though it was discussed in the movie piecemeal, it was strangely satisfying to see it play out on film, how the MEV-1 is born and spreads into humanity. And the final shot, what we see Gwyneth doing, and the subtitle: DAY ONE. Still gives me goosebumps; fine cinematic technique there Mr. Soderbergh.

The penultimate scene, though, turned the flick for me. As a father of two young girls, watching the beautiful gift Matt gives his angst-ridden teenage daughter made me immediately think, “Hey, this is a movie that loves people.” Or, at least, doesn’t despise them enough to kill off the entire species.

Grade: A-minus.

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