Contagion: a pessimistic and unforgiving study of human society in crisis

Steven Soderbergh, “Contagion” (2011)

Unexpectedly discovering a new lease of life and relevance in the current COVID-19 near-global shutdown environment, this film purports to be a procedural thriller about how health professionals, government officials and ordinary people react to and cope with an outbreak of a mystery viral disease that quickly becomes a pandemic. The film takes the form of several narratives, each centred around a particular character or set of characters, running in parallel and sometimes intersecting, but basically in agreement with respect to the film’s themes. Flashbacks are used and often the film jumps forwards in time to portray the process of social breakdown or individual characters’ development as they try to cope with uncertainty, isolation and ongoing stress.

Returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and Macau, and meeting with a former lover on her way back home to Minneapolis, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with seizures and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to hospital. Her death and its mysterious cause puzzle the doctors. Mitch returns home to find that his stepson is also dead. He is put into isolation but is found to be immune to whatever killed his wife and stepson. He later returns home to his teenage daughter Jory and together they sit through self-quarantine and isolation, and observe their neighbourhood breaking down around them as the pandemic takes hold and people either rush the stores or queue for necessities or resort to arson and other forms of violence to get the things they need.

While the Emhoffs huddle together, in Atlanta, representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security meet with Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and express misgivings that the emerging disease in Minneapolis is a bioweapon. Cheever despatches an officer, Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to investigate the situation there and she traces the outbreak to Beth Emhoff. Mears’ recommendations to local public health authorities to set up a field hospital and track and quarantine sick people fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately Mears herself falls sick and dies. In the meantime, a researcher at the CDC headquarters, Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), makes some breakthroughs in analysing the virus’ genome and finds it to be a combination of bat and pig-borne viruses. A professor in California ignores Cheever’s orders to destroy his own samples and identifies a cell culture that Hextall is able to use to create a vaccine.

Conspiracy theorist blogger Alex Krumwiede (Jude Law) posts videos on his blog about the mystery virus and boasts that he has cured himself of the illness with a homoeopathic remedy. Soon people in the US start raiding pharmacies and supermarkets for that remedy. In a TV interview, Krumwiede says that Cheever secretly advised his family and friends to flee Atlanta during the lockdown and this leads to a government investigation of Cheever’s actions.

While all this is happeing, World Health Organisation epidemiologist Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) and other public health officials working in Hong Kong work through CCTV evidence of Beth Emhoff’s activities in that territory and in Macau, during which she visited a casino, and identify her as Patient X. One HK official, Sun Feng (Chin Han) kidnaps Orantes and takes her to his village as a hostage in an effort to get hold of the vaccine when it becomes available. Orantes is released months later when the vaccine doses are eventually delivered to the village by WHO officials, but on being told that these doses are placebos, she returns to the village to warn everyone.

The film flits from one narrative to another without going into any of them in much depth. Characters are little more than stereotypes and audiences may not feel much empathy for them. There is little for Mitch and Jory to do in isolation other than get on each other’s nerves and Jory turns out to be little more than a superficial and stereotyped portrayal of a supposedly typical American teenage girl whose main goal in life seems to be contacting her boyfriend by whatever means she can, even at the cost of endangering her health and life. The most interesting narrative – Dr Orantes being taken hostage and driven to a rural village – is treated the worst: after her kidnapping, the doctor all but disappears from the film and only very late in “Contagion” is she revealed to have accepted a new role as a schoolteacher. Audiences would have found her transformation much more interesting to watch than any of the other narratives. What would have been her motive and how did she come to be accepted by Sun Feng’s people to be trusted to teach children?

Through the use of interlinked narratives, “Contagion” explores the nature of human social interactions and how these are influenced by different environments and external factors that affect them. When order is threatened or breaks down, and people grasp for information and news, scammers like Krumwiede take advantage of the helplessness to advance their own agendas and profit financially. Even researchers and public health officials bend or violate the rules when self-interest is involved: the vaccine is produced despite the fact that at least two people broke protocols in its research and development. Public health officials hesitate to institute lockdown procedures in Minneapolis just before a major public holiday and this allows the virus to escape and turn into a true pandemic. Political cronyism is at work as well: Mears dies because the plane that was supposed to evacuate her and take her to hospital is diverted instead to rescue a politician. Weirdly, vaccines are allocated to people on a lottery basis and one suspects (from the Orantes narrative) that the allocations have been done in such a way that people with power, money and influence get their vaccinations first.

While presenting as a study of human society under pandemic crisis conditions and the uncertainty and instability these generate, the film turns out to be not so different from most other Hollywood films of various genres in portraying humans as essentially selfish, greedy, manipulative, untrustworthy and unreliable in a crisis. The reality during the current COVID-19 global crisis is that so far in most countries, people have become more community-minded, more caring and more mindful of weak and vulnerable people. Contrary to the mostly negative portrayal of social media in “Contagion”, social media in COVID-19 conditions have become a major source of information and community networking for many people. It seems far more likely that the kind of bestial and violent behaviour present in “Contagion” is more a consequence of the dysfunctional neo-liberal capitalist society that exists across the US, with the widespread acceptance of values that privilege exploitation, cheating, ignorance and the use of violence over negotiation and compromise to get what one needs. Above all, the reality is that the US response to the current COVID-19 pandemic has been criminally haphazard, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, among which the poor and particular groups like Hispanic and Afro-Americans are over-represented; and instead of a lone rogue blogger trying to profit from the suffering, the US government at Federal and State levels, and other Western governments, are seeking to profit from the suffering by threatening to sue China for an amount of US$1.2 trillion (coincidentally the same amount that the US owes China in US Treasury bonds) for its supposed failure to notify the WHO of the disease and its pandemic potential.

The film’s conclusion demonstrating the evolution of the virus from a pathogen infesting bats into one infesting pigs and human beings is so clumsily and sketchily done that any message about human encroachment on and destruction of natural environments and the role that industrial farming plays in transmitting exotic viruses and diseases to humans is lost in a narrative that appears highly racist. “Contagion” might appear to be relevant to our current world but turns out to be little more than pro-US propaganda.