Early on in Contagion, Kate Winslet’s character makes reference to a “plastic shark making people afraid of the water” in reference to the fear and panic that can stem from the sensationalization of a fearful topic. Whether the line is meant self-referentially is unclear but after watching this movie, there aren’t too many people who will become incredibly self-aware of the frequency with which they touch their face and the infrequency with which they wash their hands.
And that’s the really scary thing about Contagion, it does an incredible job of convincing you that the viral threat represented in the movie could totally friggin’ happen. There are two main approaches that contribute to the terror of the situation.
Firstly, a large part of the movie is presented in an unemotional, analytical way. Sometimes taking the form of outright jargon, we become utterly convinced that the story is less a constructed narrative, and more a plausible prediction of what the world would look like when (not if) this mess all starts to go down. You’ve got a whole spectrum of reactions covered, from the husband of patient zero, all the way up to the up-and-ups of the American government. In nearly every scene, the characters respond as per their duty, training, and station. Even the blogger (played amazingly by Jude Law) who is calling bullshit on everything that happens is left to an ambiguous fate so that the film, rather than making a statement on the ability of social media to report news, simply acknowledges the fact that, for better or worse, it is a reality of the modern world which would affect the way in which such an epidemic would be perceived by a 21st century online population.
Tying very closely into this notion is the authenticity of the film. More often than not, fictionalized accounts of diseases don’t bother with the details and are more concerned with the sexy scientist looking good than covering her up with realistic, authentic protective equipment when she is dealing with a virus that is trying to wipe out human civilization. Now, while I by no means pretend to have a full, complete knowledge of the proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) when dealing with apocalyptic materials, enough time is spent focusing on the science that the assumption is that there is legitimacy to it. Hell, at this point, half of the Trivia listed on the movie’s Imdb page centers on the advise and teachings of the film’s medical adviser, Dr. Ian Lipkin. Apparently the attention to detail extended so far that a scene was reshot because Lipkin deemed it inaccurate for a female scientist to be wearing tights while she was working. By offering up this much detail and perceived authenticity, the film carries a fearful taste of plausibility.
This plausibility acts two-fold as well. Firstly, it makes the threat seem incredibly real. Secondly, it makes the reactions of the people involved seem impossible to judge. It poses serious, hypothetical questions about what your own actions would be in that situation, and I find myself going to a fairly scary place in imagining the lengths that I would go to to take care of my family if I was anywhere near this situation.
This is not to say Contagion is entirely bereft of emotional impact. Rather, the opposite is true. Even when presented in a typically cold manner, there are still flashes where, once a character is able to be distanced from the enormity of the situation, they are allowed a moment to breathe and feel what must be overwhelming, impossible to describe feelings. Sometimes the feeling comes from the inevitability of one’s own death, and sometimes the feeling comes from the suspension that regular life has taken while the world is being overridden with disease and the annihilation of human life. As an example of the latter, one of the characters loses his wife and son to the disease, and during the course of its investigation, he discovers that she has been unfaithful to him. So, not only does he learn that he has lost two members of his family, the very foundation of his relationship with his wife is shattered. However, all of this gets lost, even to himself, to the global panic that has begun to erupt. Personal pain loses its place as a priority when disease, rioting, murder, and politics are affecting every single person on the planet on a personal level. Once he finds hope, however, and the possibility of all of that terrible, universal stuff goes away, the very first thing that this man is left with is grief and betrayal. It’s a hollowing experience to see what should be an enormous sigh of relief instead be replaced with months-long, pent up purging of horrible, soul-wrenching emotion.
Most of the negative criticism that I have heard directed toward this film focuses on its scope. There are, allegedly, too many characters leaving little room for any kind of real catharsis. I simply disagree. The “large” cast creates the possibility of getting the whole picture of the situation without completely sacrificing the human elements. Sure, sometimes we seem to be dealing with robots rather than people but when it counts, the film counters its meticulous approach with a truly terrifying concept. To focus on just one character would be a discredit to the real, awesome power of nature’s most deadly creations, and to the terror that, even if this one doesn’t get us, something eventually will. And, when that happens, no one will be left to sympathize with.