Directed by Steven Soderbergh and featuring a terrific ensemble cast including Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Bryan Cranston, CONTAGION was an unsettling watch in 2011. The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed interest in the film, which is a realistic depiction of a devastating pandemic, though thankfully COVID isn’t nearly as lethal and contagious as the virus depicted in the film.
I’d written a book several years before the film came out depicting a very similar scenario, though my virus was based on the Spanish Flu, which shows a remarkable similarity to the coronavirus in terms of transmission, hospitalization rate, and mortality rate. I did a huge amount of research on how a real pandemic would play out, which ruined a lot of biological apocalypse movies for me. CONTAGION got it exactly right. I thought it overplayed the role of exploitation of willful ignorance portrayed in the character played by Jude Law, but man, looking at COVID, did I call that wrong.
The result is a film that rolls out as a very realistic medical and apocalyptic thriller, made all the more chilling by how accurate it is in terms of what a novel organism can do to civilization in a short time, and how civilization fights back with the best of human ingenuity and spirit. The film covers a broad cross section of people responding to the pandemic, so we never really get to feel connected to any of them very much, but there are some powerfully emotional moments, such as when a CDC field agent realizes she’s sick, and when a man’s family abruptly dies and he struggles to protect the only family he has left, his teenage daughter. The film is also fairly procedural, but I like that kind of stuff–I’m weird in that I like films that realistically depict somebody doing an interesting job well.
Is this a film to watch during a pandemic? I kind of wish more people would, if only to aid understanding of how this kind of thing works and why public health officials approach it the way they do. But it’s not for everybody for sure. I loved it for how chilling it was–the monster is real, it’s in nature, and it can have devastating agency–and I especially enjoyed seeing the film again and how accurate it turned out to be. (Seen on Netflix)