In times of coronavirus outbreak, why Steven Soderbergh's 2011 medical thriller Contagion makes for essential viewing

The viewership of Contagion, a 2011 prophetic film on the outbreak of a hypothetical virus, is increasing in the current climate of coronavirus.

Devansh Sharma March 11, 2020 16:04:53 IST
In times of coronavirus outbreak, why Steven Soderbergh's 2011 medical thriller Contagion makes for essential viewing

In times of the coronavirus outbreak, Steven Soderbergh's 2011 medical thriller Contagion makes for essential viewing because it is a fully realised, accurate vision of a pandemic, and its impact across various quarters, while also never losing hope.

As I rewatched the film, there were several instances that felt close to the bone. The film deals with a fictional pandemic of MEV-1. When scientists come up with the vaccine in a limited quantity, they pick the few fortunate ones to receive it via a lottery based on birth date.

The world is your oyster, until it is claimed by the virus

Sodenbourgh, along with writer Scott Z Burns, builds a 'hyperlink cinema' narrative around the pandemic to lend it a global appeal. From Hong Kong to Chicago to Africa to Europe, the virus spreads across the globe like an ink pot spilled onto a map.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in a still from Contagion

Eventually in the narrative, the US government's attempt to lock down their country (like Italy has done in the current climate of coronavirus ) fails to translate because the world is connected by intangible media like the internet, particularly social media. Physical barring can barely prevent the transmission of information, which can easily lead to access of illegal or alternative routes. If that was the case back in 2011, it is far worse now in 2020.

(Mis)Information spreads like a wildfire

In the state of a pandemic, the need of the hour is to remain aware. But awareness may be subjected to either the government's whims and fancies or the new forces' vested interests. In the film, there is an attempt by the higher authorities in the US government to avoid public panic. "Nobody knows till everybody knows," one official is heard saying, which reflects the state's apathy or incompetence to cure an epidemic. Their best bet is to merely contain it, and disown the infected population.

But at the same time, reliance devoid of individual assessment cannot be applied to private sources of information. This is illustrated in the film through the example of Jude Law's character Alan Krumwiede, an independent journalist and a conspiracy theorist. He conducts an online campaign to protest against the governments "in bed with" pharmaceutical companies. However, towards the end, it is revealed he was just employed by the alternative medicine biggies to encourage sale of their homeopathic medicine.

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Jude Law in a still from Contagion

Does panic make the doctor go away?

Now, misinformation or confusion regarding the authenticity of the source of any information can conveniently lead to panic. But Contagion also shows the flip side of what damage an all-hell-breaks-loose situation can cause in such a case. Once the medication (like sanitizers and air masks in the case of coronavirus currently) start going out of stock, only a few hands get claim over the limited stock in every medical store across the country. As is the tendency of mob mentality, concerned crowds ransack medical stores, break into locked general stores, and loot supplies from the few fortunate ones. This leads to unhinged mayhem, and subsequently law-and-order tension, in addition to widespread concerns of a pandemic.

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear

Soderbergh also doubles up as the cinematographer of Contagion, which is reflected in the detailing of every frame. Right from the start, he chooses to focus the camera on the object, from the handle of a door to a plastic straw in a cocktail, that comes in contact with the infected people. The crystallised images of these objects return to one's eyes when one is joining the dots in the end to decode how the virus spread from one person living in a remote part of the world to another residing in some other corner.

Professional duty > personal sacrifice

A couple of instances in the film show how a professional, particularly in the realm of public health, is torn between the well-being of their loved ones and the larger cause of controlling the outbreak. In one such instance, Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Officer, goes to great lengths (both physical and geographical) to trace the index case of the virus. She keeps her calm throughout the process but gets rattled by the subsequent surfacing of the symptoms in her body. A professional of unwavering dedication, and a human of endless optimism, she decides to investigate how she got the virus. However, she cannot help but communicate the development to Dr Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) of the Centre for Disease Control and prevention (CDC), who cannot help her since the authorities decide to use the designated charter to rescue a Congressman instead.

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Kate Winslet in a still from Contagion

In another instance, Cheever encounters a weak moment when he informs a loved one to leave her home state on the verge of a confidential lockdown. Later, he redeems himself by offering his vaccine to his less privileged helper's son.

(Also read: Rise in anti-Asian sentiment following coronavirus outbreak is hardly a new phenomenon, experts say)

Why diffusion of love and hope must precede that of the virus

The micro impact of a macro outbreak of the virus is highlighted through the track of Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), an everyman from the US. His life changes within a day when both his wife and son succumb to the disease. He tries his best to conceal his daughter from the virus. He bars her from meeting her boyfriend Lorraine in order to avoid any human contact. But in the final moments of the film see him fixing up a date for the two. He smiles as they dance together as his fear gives in to love, the lack of which distanced him from his late wife. Instances like these separate Contagion from post-apocalyptic films like Bird Box and A Quiet Place. But at the same time, they make the film more real, and the threat it presents more imminent.

All images from YouTube.

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