Bacteria, viruses, microbes, parasites, allergens, heavy metals, toxins. All things that can make you sick and/or kill you.
But thankfully, for those of us born in the more modern nations, we are pretty safe from those things. Despite what the goddamn media and the goddamn pseudoscientists tell us. But it doesn’t stop some people from being paranoid as shit regarding these kinds of things. They’ll wash their hands twenty times a day, or refuse to shake anyone’s hand or open any door knob. People like me.
I have OCD, and I am extremely paranoid about this kinda thing, even though I know there’s no reason to be. So you know I’m the perfect person to do a review of Contagion. The movie about a virus that causes a proper pandemic and leaves the world in a near post-apocalypse. This is going to be fun.
First, I’d like to state one thing for the record. I was prompted to watch this film after reading a My Little Pony FanFiction called the Manehatten Virus. In the story (not to spoil) a highly contagious form of H5N1 with a 60% mortality rate, has begun making the rounds in Equestria. Many die, including a few of the main characters. It’s quite sad, especially considering these are characters we have a bit of a history with. We know them, they’re not strangers. So to read about them…dying…really hit me where it hurt.
Not to say the story was perfect, in fact, it was loaded with problems, but still enjoyable.
Imagine my shock when the emotional impact of Contagion was much lower. Let’s talk about the virus. First, it has a mortality rate of approximately 25%, which is still pretty bad, but the death toll would still be in the minority of those infected. If infected, the odds are in your favour. Which I think is better because it feels more realistic. The fact remains that a virus with an extremely high mortality rate is likely to die off pretty quickly. After all, if most of the infected die, who’s going to spread the virus?
This is Contagion’s biggest strength, it’s realism. Unlike many stories that might try to up the stakes by killing everyone on-screen. Contagion tries to up the stakes by showing all the side effects of a viral outbreak.
The film opens on day 2. We meet our patient zero, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s heading back home to Minneapolis, from a business trip in Hong Kong, with a layover in Chicago. This is how it starts people. In the 21st century, people fly around the world so quickly, by the time you realize you contracted a deadly virus, you’ve already spread it to 50 different countries. In fact we quickly learn that it’s not just Hong Kong, Chicago and Minneapolis, but a model in London also contracted the virus, and is the first to die. A Japanese business man, who Paltrow met during the trip, and a waiter in Hong Kong, also die from the virus. Okay, the waiter died from the virus indirectly, but it still counts dammit!!!
By Day 4, patient zero has a seizure, and dies after being rushed to hospital and treated by a doctor with a shit bedside manner. Not long after, her son also dies from the virus, which is possibly one of the worst parts. The son dies under the care of a babysitter as his step-father is at the hospital. When he gets back, he finds his family gone. Taken by the virus, and they still don’t know what it is.
It’s actually kinda scary. Seeing how quickly these things escalate. But it isn’t long before the CDC, and the WHO get involved, and they hit the ground running, unfortunately, it’s too late, and the virus is already out of their control.
The most interesting scenes involve Kate Winslet, who is working as a CDC envoy to the Minnesota Department of Health, and we learn how skewed government priorities are. One character, played by Tara Mallen (no you probably don’t know who that is), is more concerned about the local economy and the attitudes of the people, rather than whether they live or die. She mentions that Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping weekend of the year, as if that fucking matters when people are dying. Later, as Winslet is preparing to convert a stadium into a make-shift hospital for the infected, the same character arrives and asks: “Is this coming out of your budget or ours?” Who the fuck cares!? Bitch.
This is how it all starts, but it isn’t really the main plot. For we have an entire cast of characters that are affected by the virus, but not Doctors or Health Officials. What’s their story?
Matt Damon plays the husband of patient zero. He loses his wife and step-son in a day, and isn’t left much time to grieve. But there is a silver lining, his daughter, who was out-of-town at the time. She survives and is the only family he has left. If you lost everything, but one last precious gem, what would you do to protect it? He places his daughter in semi-permanent quarantine. She’s not even allowed to see her boyfriend. For a teenage girl, you might as well cut her heart out.
Thankfully, Damon’s character is immune to the virus. Something he learned when he didn’t even run a fever while everyone else was rotting from the virus. So, he can still head out, grab supplies, while his daughter is safe at home. It’s a good thing…for him.
Meanwhile, Jude Law plays a blogger who’s wheelhouse involves bullshit conspiracy theories. He finds video of the Japanese businessman dying, and tries to take the lead on the story for the San Francisco Chronicle. It doesn’t go well, and he bitterly saunters out yelling, “Print media is dying!” Which I guess is the reason he was so interested in working with them? Seriously, what the hell!? He runs with the story independently, and manages to talk to the doctor who figured out what the virus was. I say ‘talk to’ and not ‘interview’ because the doctor doesn’t really answer any questions, he just insults the man, and I say good on him.
During this conversation Law’s first question is: “Where did it come from? Military? Industrial? Genetically modified organism?” I find it interesting that he automatically thinks it came from anywhere and didn’t just happen. Sometimes things just happen without reason. The entire universe is built on this wave of chaos and random shit happens without anyone’s intention or influence. Perhaps it was just a perfect storm of random occurrence. No reason, or intention. It just happened.
The thing about this character is that he’s the worst of the worst. A man who’s not simply foolish, and doesn’t just obfuscate or distort, but outright lie. He claims to catch the virus and then starts taking some herbal homeopathic horse shit called forsythia, and since he never had the virus, he can easily claim it cured him. This causes many members of the general public to start pouring into pharmacies looking for the
medicine drug stuff, and in one instance, it causes a riot when a pharmacy staff member says their supplies are limited.
Why would the idiot do this? He got $4.5 million out of it. From who? I’m not sure, but my best guess: Big snake oil paid him off. Or he had stock in some homeopathic horse shit peddler.
He doesn’t seem to feel the least bit guilty, even at the end when the vaccine is being distributed he suggests that people avoid taking it because there might be risks, and instead start taking the bullshit water. Basically, he’s a git…a shameless git.
Let’s get back to the smart people. We have the brilliant scientists at the CDC played by Julianne Moore look-alike, Jennifer Ehle, and oddly enough, Demetri Martin. I didn’t know he could do dramatic roles. Anyway, they take the lead in the investigation and with the help of Elliot Gould, determine the virus has elements of pig, bat and human DNA. It attaches to both the nervous and respiratory systems and is very resilient, and unique, and deadly, and basically we’re all screwed. Which brings us to an interesting point, where the CDC head decides to lock this shit down and only allow the virus to be researched in labs at Bio-Safety Level 4 (the highest). Which is a problem for Gould’s character because he’s running a BSL 3. He needs to stop his research.
It’s an interesting dilemma. Because high-security labs are expensive and rare, and while this decision makes it less likely for the virus to spread any further, it also means fewer researchers, which also means it will likely take longer to find a cure. It’s a sad state of affairs my friends.
This regulation eventually makes them look like morons once they reveal there is no way to culture the virus, until Gould manages to secretly do just that in his humble BSL 3. If he did listen to the CDC, and shut down his work on the virus, who knows how long it would have taken them to figure it out on their own. Culturing the virus is the first step to doing any kind of research, and more importantly, developing a vaccine. I like this because it demonstrates how important it is to allow as many people as possible access to this kind of research.
We also have Morpheus playing the apparent Head of the CDC, Doctor Ellis Cheever. Phenomenal performance by Fishburne I must say. He’s dragged in front of an Admiral of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (bit of a mouthful, and I’ll bet you didn’t know they had a military-type organization like that), played by the dad from Malcolm in the Middle. The Admiral is accompanied by DHS agent, Dennis French, played by the photographer guy from Just Shoot Me! (wow, that’s an old show), who’s first assumption is, this virus is an attack by a terrorist group. I’m not sure, but I think he’s just as bad as the crazy blogger guy. Though at least he’s asking a real doctor if it’s true before blogging about it.
But of course it’s during this scene we get one of my favourite lines of dialogue:
French: Is there any way someone could weaponize the bird flu, is that what we’re looking at?
Fishburne: Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu…the birds are doing that.
Random shit happen people. There doesn’t have to be any intention behind it.
Meanwhile, Mall Cobb from Inception plays a Doctor with the WHO. She’s sent to Hong Kong to research the origins of the virus. A task which bites her in the ass when she’s suddenly kidnapped by her Chinese translator who wants his village to get to the front of the line when the vaccine is finally released. During her stay she bonds with the villagers, and acts as a school teacher. Which is quite sweet when you think about it, even though we only get one scene of her teaching the children to support this. So when the vaccine is released, and it’s time for the government to give in to their ransom demands, she is visibly upset when she is told they were given a fake. It makes you think doesn’t it? I mean on one hand, they were essentially terrorists, kidnapping a WHO representative, but on the other hand, all they really wanted was for their families to be protected. There are worse reasons to kidnap someone.
After she finds this out, she runs out of the airport, and I’m not exactly sure why, where she was going, or what she was going to do. Best guess, she wanted to contact the village to warn them the vaccine was a fake so they wouldn’t end up taking any risks. But it would have been nice to see that.
Eventually we come back to Winslet’s character. Her story arc comes to a head when she manages to contract the virus, and Fishburne tries everything he can to get her home to Atlanta, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. She ends up dying of the virus in Minnesota. It’s a sad moment, seeing her suffer and die in the stadium-turned-hospital that she helped create. Why couldn’t they get her back home? Because the one plane that has an isolation pod specifically for this purpose has been requisitioned to transport a Congressman back home to Illinois. By the time that’s done, the airports will be closed and the borders will be locked-down. There won’t be any time to get Winslet back home.
Once Morphius is told this bit of information, he makes an interesting move. His wife is in Illinois, which will soon be placed under quarantine. What would you do in that situation? Of course he warns her and tells her to leave the state, and unfortunately, her and her big mouth tell a friend, who blogs about it. Eventually this bites Fishburne in the ass because he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, and Jude Law informs him of the incriminating evidence on live TV. Basically, there’s a good chance he’ll get arrested over it. Personally, I don’t blame him. It was his wife for fuck sake! I would do the same thing.
On that note, let’s talk about Damon’s character, and his daughter. When they notice the civil unrest in their Minneapolis, Damon decides to get out-of-town, and out-of-state. But by the time they get to the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, it’s already been locked-down. Which confuses me, I thought Illinois was the state that was placed under quarantine. I guess several governors had the same idea, and they decided to move all at once.
You know what bugs me about this movie. The fact that despite the declaration that the virus’ mortality rate is somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent, every character who catches it on-screen, dies. Every single one. We don’t meet a single person who catches the virus and recovers. They all die. By sheer odds we would expect at least half of them to survive, but they don’t. It bugs the hell out of me. I get that they wanted to up the stakes, but making up stuff like this is bullshit! At least in the Manehatten Virus the writer had one character survive infection, and in that story the mortality rate was much higher!
Anyway, eventually things get worse as the virus mutates into a more contagious strain, which makes finding a vaccine even more crucial. They have little success in that department. So they start looking into more risky schemes for developing a vaccine, such as using a live virus. The obvious risk being the fact that the virus could convert back into its wild state and end up making people sick instead.
Eventually, they find a formula that works, and since human trials for this kind of thing typically takes weeks, not Julianne Moore tests the vaccine on herself. A risky proposal. Lo and behold, it works, and manufacturing begins immediately. Unfortunately, manufacturing enough to inoculate an entire nation, much less an entire planet, will take months, if not a whole year, during which time more and more will get sick. But it’s best to begin sooner rather than later. So they start with a lottery based on people’s birthdays. Which is an ingenious plan if you think about it. They could have gone first-come-first-serve, but that would just result in riots, as desperate people try to force their way to the front of the line.
As the film ends, we see Fishburne give his vaccine to the child of a janitor at the CDC. Since he works there, he was allowed to jump the line. I guess he gave it up because they were such good friends, and he wanted to make up for his selfish behaviour earlier in the film. It seems quite noble, and if anyone can avoid getting infected despite failing to get inoculated, it’s an epidemiologist.
We then see Damon’s daughter finally get her first taste of freedom in over four months as her recently inoculated boyfriend arrives for a pseudo-prom her father put together in the living room. Meanwhile Damon is looking for his digital camera, and finds the photos his wife took of her trip to Hong Kong. As he looks through them he breaks down, and starts to mourn the death of his wife. It’s a pretty sad moment. The fact that things got so crazy over the past four and a half months that he never got a chance to properly mourn is tragic in and of itself.
But after all that, we come to my favourite moment in the film. The final scene, where we see a tree get knocked down in China, letting loose a colony of bats, one of which ends up dropping a banana he was eating in a crowd of pigs. I think you know where this is going. We see the pig who ate the banana get taken away, where it is killed (off-screen) and delivered to a kitchen where a chef starts fingering it. His attention is grabbed by an assistant or something, so he wipes his hands on his apron, because screw soap and water, and steps out into the dining room to shake hands with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character…our patient zero.
It’s at this moment we learn what really happened: A series of random coincidences and a chef who was too lazy to stop at a sink caused an international pandemic which killed millions. Not long after I first saw this film I got a job washing dishes at a restaurant. So this scene really stuck with me.
So, in conclusion: Do I love this film? Oh, you bet! Would I watch it again? Oh, I have! Is it perfect? Hell, no! Do I recommend everyone watch it as soon as they can? Hell, yes! Am I going to go wash my hands right now? …yep.