With autumn chills setting in and the flu season on the way, now is the right time to scare the crap out of people with a movie about the deadly spread of a highly contagious virus.
Starting at day two, Contagion tracks an unknown virus as it spreads across the globe, starting with a very small group of unsuspecting people.
Unfolding like a documentary rather than a Hollywood blockbuster, director Steven Soderburgh uses the same multi-story set-up he used in his Oscar-winning Traffic to weave together the various players in an epidemic affecting the world.
This is no Bruce Willis action film. It’s not even similar to 1998’s Outbreak. This feels more like a high-end mini-series which uses the tension of a scared population to raise the thriller stakes, rather than explosions or soldiers chasing infected monkeys.
Driven by an ensemble cast filled with Oscar notables, it’s the relationships between the characters which inject the urgency behind the impact of the virus. It seems unnecessary to sound a spoiler alert, but in a film about a deadly disease, people will die. And with the likes of Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne in the cast, you know no-one is immune.
All credit then to the director for sparing no-one, regardless of their Hollywood stature, from the effects of the disease. It’s a bold move – almost as though he’s making it clear that no-one is safe. Not even your wealth or fame will protect you.
Like a cautionary tale about the downside to globalisation, it soon becomes clear that our global village is a single sneeze away from one very serious sick day. As scientists hunt for a cause and therefore a cure, Contagion takes the brave decision to neither hide the realities nor over-hype the dangers. Finding cures and finding vaccines takes a long time. There is no quick fix. There will be blood.
But the spread of the virus is nothing next to the spread of rumour and panic which moves faster yet, often with far more damaging effects. As good information vies with fear-induced gossip, it becomes harder to trust the authorities or feel reassured by doctors – the very people who still earn some respect in a post-modern world cynical about politicians and the church. Even communities become divided as they try to protect themselves. Every cough signals a look of fear from your neighbour. That itchiness you feel in the back of your throat – could it be the start of something serious, and do you tell people?
What becomes clear, though, is how naturally affectionate people are. As awkward as we may be about our personal space in a lift, we cannot help but want to communicate through touch. Whether it’s a handshake, a hug or a kiss we get great pleasure from physical contact. Which is why the disease spreads so easily. Each door handle, each elevator button, each pole on a bus becomes another surface for spreading the disease. Full marks to whichever marketing genius was behind the bottles of Contagion-labelled alcoholic hand gel handed out at the end of the press screening.
In addition to instinctively wanting to communicate through touch, we want to protect those nearest to us, to be near them when our lives are threatened or we are struggling. It says a lot about an individualistic society that self-sacrifice and the desire to be with people is quick to come to the fore when disaster looms.
Not counting an unfocused last quarter, the film is gripping and engrossing, creating plenty of food for thought. As powerful as we may think we are, there is nothing so humbling as a tiny but deadly virus. Despite our best intentions, we are still extremely vulnerable and fragile beings.
Now, is that a cough I feel coming on? Pass me the alcoholic hand-gel.