“Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation.”
So says medical researcher Elliot Gould to crank blogger Jude Law in Contagion, directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh and opening today in a bacterium-infested theater near you.
The contagion is a virus that threatens to wipe out a good 1% of the population. The earth’s population. It seems to have originated in Hong Kong, in a casino, and because of the way people interact—casually, unreflectively, and extremely tactilely—it has spread quickly.
Of course, in any major crisis, panic is feared as much as whatever is posing the immediate threat. Which is why the other contagion of the film is information. And misinformation. And rumor. And in the Internet and text-messaging age, that contagion can spread even faster than the viral kind. In fact, one of the bad guys of the piece is an anti-vaccine, conspiracy-mongering blogger (Law) who is pushing the use of a homeopathic cure, which he claims the CDC—and Big Pharma—are deliberately neglecting because it can’t be patented. He’s the epitome of the anti-greed holistic type who’s as materialistic and cracked as the CEOs he despises.
Disease has a distinctly democratic character, while cures are far more privileged. That is the other message of Contagion: even if you concoct a cure, how do you decide who gets it first? There are powerful people, including do-gooders in the medical establishment, who have ready access when children far away are dropping like tse-tses. Is this fair? Or just inevitable because life is unfair?
Lawrence Fishburne plays a CDC official who is the epitome of calm cool collectedness. Fishburne wears gravitas like Sinatra wore a fedora, as if he was born with it. Among the data-collecting heroes are Kate Winslet and Marion Cottilard, who is literally kidnapped in China to ensure that a village filled with uninfected children will be among the first to get the vaccine when and if it is produced.
And how much fun is it to see Gwyneth Paltrow get the top of her head sliced off? And not because she’s become one of the more popular people to hate, but because her character is such a skeezy coodie-carrier. Matt Damon plays her husband, a working-class sorta guy who proves immune to the virus and whose only goal is to protect his daughter from ever becoming infected, which means keeping her away from boys! (Talk about pregnant symbolism!)
Amid the riots and looting and general mayhem that result from the terror occasioned by waiting for a Godot-like government to come up with a cure for what ails the world, “religion” is relegated to a Christian school for children in China and a single shot of a Catholic nun attending dying first-responders, as the nurses attached to the CDC have gone on strike. (It seems that the union was unhappy about the safety protocols, and so pulled their people off the job. A lot of very un-PC stuff in this film.)
Contagion describes a world where “distancing” oneself physically from others is the key to survival, making reliance on a technology that is as likely to kill you with misinformation as connect you with the latest on a possible cure inevitable. Who do you trust when you’re confronted with an invisible killer and every authority is suspect because they all have something to gain from exposing it? Again, what’s more anti-hierarchical, more democratic, than the Internet? What’s also filled with more horse manure packaged as sirloin? The baffled individual is left to take a leap of faith that there are self-sacrificing people of good will working to mitigate suffering. In other words, the only way to keep from giving in to the forces of despair is to believe in such a thing as Good.
I won’t give away the ending, and the ending is actually where the story begins: how the virus became the virus in the first place. The real villain is no great surprise, however, but that it’s not the drug companies or even Homeland Security was. They’re actually benign forces here.
Contagion is a smart, well-made thriller and is likely to do for the handshake what Jaws did for swimming. In fact, you may want to stay home and wait until you can stream it on Netflix. Better safe than sniffly.