I’ll never forget the first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. It was 2011 and I was at the Venice Film Festival at the huge theater used for press screenings the Darsena Theater. It is cavernous place which seats about 1500 people. It was the morning and as we watched unfold a worldwide virus decimate the population of North America and society breakdown, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were coughing. I think other people did as well and soon it was apparent that people were trying not to cough but coughing all the louder still. Paranoia shivered into panic!
The spread of the lethal Coronavirus has been dominating headlines. As one result cinemas have been closed across the country and major movies that were scheduled for release have gone directly online in an unprecedented move. Another result has been that Steven Soderbergh’s movie Contagion has shot up the streaming rental charts as people seek out a fictional counterpart to real life news events. And rewatching the film you can see why. Soderbergh brings a matter of fact and informed eye to a great ‘what if’ scenario.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays a business woman returning from a trip to Hong Kong and bringing with her an unknown virus. She is the first victim in a quite shocking early death but soon her family and anyone she has come into contact with start to show symptoms. Husband Matt Damon is apparently immune but soon society is beginning to fall apart as the contagion spreads. Scientists led by Lawrence Fishburne Jr attempt to prod local and national authorities into action but they are slow to respond and soon conspiracy theorist Jude Law is spreading potentially fatal fake news.
One of the main ways in which Contagion is highly effective is in Soderbergh’s use of an almost documentary-like naturalism, similar to the style he used to detail the failings of the War on Drugs in Traffic. For the most part, fatal epidemics have been relegated to the backstory of horror movies such as I Am Legend and 28 Days Later. One horror movie that does address a disease as the actually enemy rather than the creator of zombies is David Cronenberg’s Shivers which seemed to anticipate the panic surrounded the AIDs many years later. Another non-horror exception is Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman, which charted the progress of an Ebola-like virus and the battle to contain the disease.
But Outbreak came out 25 years ago. And though Soderbergh’s film was well received and a modest box office success, it is perhaps only now coming into its own as the dangers and risks of the Coronavirus come home. It’s possible that the reason medical disaster movies like Contagion and outbreak are so rare is precisely because of the kind of experience I had watching it the first time. We don’t want to know about the dangers of infection while we sit in the dark with hundreds of people we don’t know coughing. Fortunately, we can sit at home and catch up on streaming.
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Watch Contagion now on CHILI.