Back in 2011, a Steven Soderbergh medical thriller, made on a modest budget of $60 million, with a kitty party ensemble of Hollywood A-listers, killed off Gywneth Paltrow in its first 20 minutes. Today, nine years later, Contagion, starring Jude Law, Kate Winslet. Matt Damon, and Marion Cotillard, has become the most watched film online. The film’s renewed cultural popularity – it’s being streamed across platforms, ranking ahead of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Parasite – is because of the cause behind Paltrow’s death: a deadly virus pandemic.
Revolving around an unidentifiable virus that manages to take the world’s population under siege almost overnight, Contagion derives its horror by tracking the unpreparedness of world health systems to contain the lid on a pandemic. It follows a group of protagonists forced to fend for themselves during an outbreak that turns out to be much more injurious than imaginable. The movie, written by Scott Z Burns, travels back and forth to reveal the ease with which social order can be disrupted mid-crisis and how comfortable governments can seem while misinforming an entire population instead of protecting them. (Looking at you Donald Trump!)
In the wake of coronavirus spreading across the globe rapidly, it’s become more and more difficult to view the film in isolation as just an action thriller that picked up a bunch of awards. Contagion, stacked with eerie parallels to the Covid-19 pandemic, has in fact, turned into a prophetic disaster movie of our times, one that foreshadowed the depravity of mankind and the apathy of the government, in alarming detail.
A random set of events has the power to suddenly transpire into a global catastrophe.
Perhaps, that holds a clue as to why Contagion has become the go-to flashback movie to unpack the uncertainty and helplessness that grips us today. Unlike other disaster movies or thrillers about viruses, this isn’t the film that is invested solely with terrorising irrationally with exaggerated worst-case scenarios. By the end, even though a vaccine is developed, the crisis isn’t averted. Instead, what Contagion does is offer a pragmatic account of just how little it takes for things to go wrong on catastrophic levels – a scenario whose ramifications are unfolding right in front of our eyes at the moment.
An article in Guardian calls the fascination with Contagion as “a sanctioned version of exposure therapy,” which writer Charles Bramesco argues is a seemingly comforting way “an inconceivable menace can be experienced and survived.” Rewatching disaster films, and in particular, Contagion, at a time where the world is falling apart might look like a bleak affair, but as Bramesco claims it’s also a way for people to survey what might be left after it is all over. “It’s a form of emergency preparedness for the mind.”
As in real life, even in the film, the virus becomes a worldwide health crisis through innocuous ways.
Contagion opens with something as trivial as a cough. The black screen informs us that it is Day 2. The cough is coming from 34-year-old Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), returning from a business trip in Hong Kong. She is sitting at the Chicago airport, coughing, eating peanuts, while talking to someone on the phone. Before you know it, she proceeds to board her plane, coming in contact with several other passengers. Right after, the focus shifts to three other people on public transport, looking as pale and sweaty as Emhoff: There’s an Ukranian model in London, a businessman in Tokyo, and a waiter on the train in Tokyo. All of them are coughing as well.
Naturally, the viewer is led to know something that these four people don’t: They’re the first set of people to be infected with a life-threatening virus – a touch-communicated disease. The four have unfortunately, not only had contact with each other, but have also unknowingly passed on the disease to innumerable people who happened to be in close proximity, spread across continents, social standing, and age groups. Once Emhoff lands home in Minneapolis, her condition deteriorates at a break-neck speed. The morning after, she collapses on her kitchen-floor mid-seizure and dies after her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to the hospital. He comes back home to another tragedy: His five-year-old stepson Clark, who had the same symptoms as his mother, is dead too. The remaining three victims are dead as well, having infected people around them in similar fashion.
Soon, a team of global medical experts (including Kate Winslet as a disease detective) are banded together to investigate the cause of these deaths, while simultaneously trying to contain the innumerable new cases cropping up around the world every alternate hour. Although MEV-1, the fictional virus that is detected in the film, is deadlier with a 72-hour incubation period and a higher fatality rate than Covid-19, the contours are the same. As in real life, even in the film, the virus becomes a worldwide health crisis through innocuous ways, ones that would ideally not register in daily interactions at all. Someone gets it after a handshake, someone after touching the handrail in a bus without accounting for the hands that have touched it before, and someone just on account of investigating the deaths and by being in the same room as victims. It seems eerily familiar to what is unfolding the world over right now, with even doctors treating Covid-19 succumbing to the virus in China and Italy and an Indian doctor testing positive.
Contagion,revolves around an unidentifiable virus that manages to take the world’s population under siege almost overnight.
Just like Paltrow’s sudden death in Contagion, even Winslet’s death – she wakes up coughing in a hotel room and soon succumbs – takes forward the idea that really, no one is immune and that these diseases take victims without considering their age or privilege. It’s a message that has commanded attention once news broke that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson were infected as was Idris Elba.
The film also makes a mention of the number of times an individual touches their face (2,000-3,000 times a day), something we’ve all become conscious of since the coronavirus outbreak. Supermarkets are shown running empty as a result of a self-destructive hoarding panic, not very different from reports of long queues outside stores everywhere, from the US to Asia. Jude Law’s Australian blogger who senses the opportunity to make a fortune by endorsing a fake homeopathic cure, has allusions to real-life events as well: Radio host Alex Jones had been selling toothpaste that he claimed could cure the coronavirus, which the New York Attorney General had to order him to stop claiming.
Right now, Contagion seems too close to reality. Its action is lean, but Soderbergh and Burns’ construct it in a way that the fear is palpable in almost every frame. There’s no better evidence of that than in the film’s chilling closing sequence, that goes back to imagining how “Day 1” played out. In Hong Kong, a bat defecates in a pig pen. A tiny pig, who happens to eat it, is brought to the kitchen of a Macao casino. The chef who is butchering that same pig is called out to shake hands with an American business executive (As is discovered, Emhoff is the index patient). She spends the evening blowing on the dice of a Tokyo-based businessman, has her phone returned from the bar table by an Ukranian model, and her empty cocktail glass cleared by a young waiter. A random set of events has the power to suddenly transpire into a global catastrophe. What can be more terrifying than that? Besides the fact that Contagion got this close to picturing the dystopia almost a decade before it actually stopped being one.
Contagion can be streamed on Prime Video India.
This article was originally published in Arre
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