"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper"
T.S Elliot, 'The Hollow Men' (1925)
From the earliest moments of Steven Soderberg's Contagion, you feel dread. We open on a black screen, and an ominous, death-rattle cough rises up from the darkness. In these hyper sensitive times, where hospital superbugs like MRSA and C-diff are an ever-present threat, and the shadow of H1N1 and SARS still loom uncomfortably large, the mere sound is enough to set off alarm bells. As the film progresses, this tiny bell in the back of your mind will grow to the decibel level of an air raid siren.
For Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), waiting in an airport lounge on the return leg of a business trip from Hong Kong, that cough is the beginning of the end. She wishes it away as jetlag, but in a matter of days, her condition rapidly deteriorates. In agony on the kitchen floor of her Minneapolis home, she suffers a seizure, and is rushed to hospital. Frantic with worry, husband Mitch (Matt Damon) watches on as the medical team fight to save her, with no idea of what they're fighting against. Beth's struggle is brief, and after a suffering a second seizure, she dies.
The pattern is set, and it's brutal. No one is safe, regardless of social status (or indeed star wattage).
Marketed, somewhat misleadingly, as a fast-paced, action-led thriller, Contagion is much more than that. It certainly stands apart from similarly themed films such as Wolfgang Peterson's Outbreak, Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (though it does borrow the dystopian, post-apocalyptic iconography of the latter). Scott Z. Burns' script – his second collaboration with Soderberg following The Informant! – has more in common with David and Álex Pastor's Carriers and Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend, in that it dispenses with the melodramatic hokum, and explores the outbreak and containment of a viral pandemic from the perspective of ethics and morality.
The statistics are clear, sobering, and laid out from the start. We're reminded of the passage of time by titles showing the number of days since the outbreak, and, as we bounce around the globe, a wider sense of perspective comes in the form of the population statistics given when we arrive in a new location. We watch one person after the other fall ill, like an elaborate domino run. The peak (or perhaps the trough) of this comes when we stop in Guangdong Province, China, and the population of 96.1 million flashes across the screen. The enormity of the impending and seemingly inevitable loss is both staggering and terrifying all at once.
As Beth's autopsy is performed and the virus claims more victims, including her young son, Clark (Griffin Kane), the medical community begins to formulate a plan of containment. It's an elaborate game of connect the dots, where the answers aren't as simple as they appear. In one corner of the world, Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), working for WHO (World Health Organisation), briefs her colleagues about an unknown virus and the cases of infection in America, China, London and Japan. Beth's name is mentioned during the discussions. In another, Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), at work for the CDC (Centres for Disease Control), meets with Homeland Security, fearful that the same virus may be a sign of biochemical terrorism. He sends an Epidemic Intelligence Officer, Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to investigate.
Constantly thwarted by bureaucratic red tape as she attempts to secure resources, she learns that Mitch is yet to fall ill and quarantines him for his own safety. After a series of tests, it's discovered he's immune to what killed his wife and step son. He offers up the idea of using his blood as a vaccine, but the solution is nowhere near as neat. The seemingly impossible job of finding a cure is undertaken by Cheever's CDC colleagues, Dr Ally Hoxtall (Jennifer Ehle) and Dr David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin), who work on the samples sent to them as the death toll grows.
This meticulously plotted and carefully paced, if rather busy, ensemble film chronicles the journey from outbreak to the introduction of a mass vaccination programme over the course of a 144 days. It's firmly rooted in science fact rather than science fiction. Nothing is dumbed down for the sake of clarity at the expense of realism. Though initially the technical jargon is a little difficult to grasp, once you settle in to the world of the film, it's easy to follow and keep tabs on everyone's place within it. Given the fact that the cast is populated by such famous faces, it'd be easy to get lost in the novelty aspect of it all, but the strength of their performances, and the compelling material means that feeling quickly fades.
Like Traffic before it, which wasn't just about the drug trade, Contagion isn't just about a deadly virus either. It is, rather, about the complications of survival. Mitch is the case in point here. He is essentially the emotional heart of the film, because we 'live' with him the longest, and his journey is just as fraught as Beth's. Eventually, he and his teenage daughter Jody (Anna Jacoby-Heron), are under a kind of self-imposed house arrest, unable to go outside for fear they'll become infected. The streets, airports and shopping malls are deserted, food and water in short supply. Everyone is mistrustful, and will turn on their fellow man in the blink of an eye if it benefits them. Greed and selfishness are rife – a secondary disease – and, for some, carries an incredibly high cost. This is a cinema with a conscience.
The film also provides a commentary on the breakdown of social order in a world where everyone and everything is connected, whether physically or through the channels of technology. In the past, for instance, conspiracy theorists like Alan Krumweide (Jude Law, in a rather thankless part) would've once found themselves proclaiming their particular brand of truth from the street corner while Rome burned, but now, he has captive audience of millions, thanks to his online reputation. Post outbreak, he begins to create videos extolling the virtues of a herbal remedy called Forsythia, offering up a cure for those desperate enough to take a risk.
Contagion works so well because of its plausibility. What was once innocuous – a door handle, a glass of water, or the touch of a hand – becomes lethal. The monster you fear the most no longer lurks underneath your bed or in a dark closet, it's all around you and on everything you touch. Perhaps the closest Soderberg will ever get to making a blockbuster or a horror film, this killer is no crazed, knife or chainsaw-wielding psychopath, but is equally terrifying.