Think about it for a second. How often in a single day do we touch things that have been previously touched by multiple unknown people? Grocery carts; revolving doors in buildings; elevator buttons; money exchanged in various daily transactions; faucets in public restrooms; envelopes received in the daily mail; utensils at restaurants; and on and on and on.
Then imagine some mutant disease like H1N1, the Swine Flu or the HIV virus spreading by simple human contact and you have the premise for Steven Soderbergh’s surprisingly entertaining B-movie disaster film Contagion. What makes this film work is the elemental fact that we all know it could happen. Simply stated, it would be an act of supreme arrogance to presume that mankind could not be hit with a virulent, easily acquired pestilence akin to the “Black Death” in the Middle Ages where Europe lost a significant amount of its population.
As most of you know who have seen the previews, Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Imhoff) returns to her family from an overseas trip to Hong Kong with what appears to be a mild case of the flu. Within days she suffers a horrible death. As doctors look for explanations, and her husband (Matt Damon in an effortless role as a grief-stricken spouse) wrestles with the ghastly ramifications of his wife’s sudden death, it soon becomes apparent that some type of devastating illness has left numerous others infected around the globe. People suddenly start to die in large numbers in Hong Kong, London, Chicago and Minneapolis, and it is tragically clear that mankind has been hit with a pandemic of unknown causation and no known cure.
What also helps Contagion work as a serious drama is the fortunate fact that Mr. Soderbergh employs many A-list actors. Lawrence Fishburne is perfect as the caring, conflicted and concerned head of the Center for Disease Control. Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard give expected fine performances as two CDC field operatives sent to Minneapolis and China respectively in search of the origins of this modern-day plague.
Additionally, Jennifer Ehle more than holds her own against her more celebrated co-stars as Dr. Ally Hextall, a dedicated researcher who risks her own life in the fateful pursuit of finding an effective vaccination. And Jude Law provides a needed counterweight to our moralistic heroes as a skeptical blogger who sees a conspiracy between the government and the drug industry around every corner. (In one of the funnier moments in an otherwise grim movie, Elliot Gould, playing a rogue, independent researcher, dismisses Law’s alleged occupation as a blogger as nothing more than “graffiti with punctuation.”)
As I noted above, this is a classic “B-movie”, and by definition you should expect some foolishness and superficiality. However, because its premise is so utterly believable, it never descends into camp farce as reflected by such relatively recent disaster films as Armageddon (1998) and Volcano (1997). To the contrary, good people die trying to find a cure to preserve life on Earth, and that allows Contagion to establish a visceral dramatic bond with the audience.
In a sense Contagion is a throwback to some of the better disaster films of yesterday produced by the late Irwin Allen. In particular, go take a look at his best one, The Towering Inferno (1974). Though the passage of time has revealed its dramatic weaknesses, how can such a film really go wrong when the cast is led by legendary actors like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and William Holden?
And for those who are still left unconvinced, then go read John Barry’s The Great Influenza, which is a grand tale of the deadly virus that struck around the world in the winter of 1918, a time when World War I was still raging. As many as 100 million people died worldwide, killing more people in 24 weeks than AIDs had killed up to the time of its publication in 2004. As one critic at the time noted, this book is a morality tale that involves science, politics and international ignorance. It happened then, so what makes anyone think it couldn’t happen now?
And just in case I haven’t caught your attention, let me offer this scary thought. Close to 300 million Americans daily discharge human waste into our sewage systems, where it is eventually “treated” and discharged into our rivers and streams. Tens of millions of those people are on prescription medications such as Prozac, Xanax, Valium, etc. Since all of those substances go untreated into the principal sources of our drinking water, just how long do we really think it will be before mankind reaches a critical tipping point?
The famed director John Frankenheimer addressed this very subject in the now forgotten horror film Prophecy (1979). A haunting title, don’t you think? Enjoy your next glass of tap water.