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Contagion (2011)

AWAITING THE INEVITABLE

by Matt Moore

In your standard horror movie, there’s actually a lot of hope. You hope the main character survives. It’s a driving function of the character, regardless of their background, because we all have one thing in common: we don’t want to be dead. So whether you’re being chased by Leatherface, battling Freddy in dreams, making it through the hellish traps in Saw, or unraveling the mystery of The Ring, there’s this objective. Live through this, and you get to enjoy life.  

Even the best horror film from my frame of reference, Jaws, features a mortal enemy. (Furthermore, Jaws is a lot easier to survive; don’t go in the fucking water.) Eventually Linda’s not going to be possessed anymore, you don’t have to go chasing the Blair Witch, and Rosemary’s Baby requires a belief in the occult, or at least the spiritual.  

But Contagion? Contagion's best feature is that not only is it plausible, not only is it cunning, cold, and calculating, but it leaves you with this reminder: The world is out to kill you—and eventually, it wins.

The obvious line of comparison for Contagion is Outbreak, but there’s a stark difference put right up front in Contagion. There is no inflated sense of drama, nor any singular organism to pin the disease on. While a central plot line of the film involves the hunt for the source of the virus, you walk away with the oh-so-comforting knowledge that this could have been anything. There are a million ways the virus could have come into existence, a million ways it could have spread, a million ways you could contract it. The payoff in discovering the source of the virus is meant to leave you with a “huh” and instead leaves you feeling like the entire world is out to get you.  

There’s also a distinct lack of sentimentalism in Contagion to put it further away from Outbreak. Not supposed to kill kids in horrifying, sad ways? Infection cluster in an elementary school! Getting attached to that main character? Of course he/she is dead, what did you think was going to happen? 

Most thrillers are meant to entertain and let you walk away satisfied that the hero saved the girl and disaster was averted. Even disaster films are meant to reinforce the value of life and why good people fight for others. Contagion is more in line with the idea of inevitability. The numbers play out that there will be deaths, and lots of them, and the unavoidable logistics of reality interfere with the “we’re saved!” aspect. 

Contagion is a thoroughly unsentimental film that still manages to make you care about the fate of its characters (re: every other Sodherbergh flick you’ve seen). Its moments of tension aren’t heightened by unrealistic reactions, nor, hyper-dramatic circumstances. When Matt Damon’s character’s daughter goes on the all-too-expected escape, it again speaks of inevitability, not the dalliances of the young. Of course she left the house. That’s what teenage girls, what people, do.  

There’s also always a nice reminder that this isn’t some extra-special event. There are an extensive series of discussions meant to show how many times in the past pandemics and epidemics have wiped out massive portions of the human race. This isn’t a new problem; it’s just big and fast. In fact, one of Contagion’s strong points is that it doesn’t overdo it on the panic aspect. It’s not immediate nor is it overnight. In fact, most people are unaware of the severity of the problem, even after it’s become a full-fledged epidemic for two weeks. Typically I’d scoff at a viewpoint like that, not because I think so much of people, but because too often filmmakers leap to make people dumber than they actually are. But the reality of a mid-western mom being unaware of the chaos enveloping the major metropolitan city that isn’t actually hers which lies six hours north isn’t just conceivable, it’s understandable. How many stories of mass death do you hear about in passing daily, and how easily do they slip through the cracks of your neural net? 

The macro approach to the problem of the virus is critical. So often a virus is considered on the micro level, and while Damon’s character among others clearly exists to give that micro viewpoint and experiences, to drive emotion and feeling out of the glass cubicle the script constructs, the macro is the point. This is happening everywhere and simultaneously and in many different ways and in many different environments and by the way you’re dead.  

The approach is very similar to Traffic in that many of the stories are both interconnected and yet the characters seem desperately alone. Damon’s Mitch Emhoff by his widowing and the world unraveling around him, Fishburne’s Cheever by the complex and difficult tightrope walk he has to do as a public figure and leader in the crisis, Winslet’s Mears by the moral weight of being the first line of contact for the sick and dying. It’s like Babel, only somehow bleaker (which says something).  

That’s what you have to respect about Contagion. There’s no bright happy adventure. People get really sick and die but before they do they get someone else really sick and they die. People aren’t inherently good or bad though some are worse than others (especially bloggers, apparently. Who whizzed in Steven’s cereal then made it a meme?). The randomness of events that leads to the spread of the contagion isn’t some shockingly unlikely scenario. It’s just something that happens like the next thing will be something that happens.  

Maybe the film’s best put into perspective by its soundtrack: The cold techno thump driving the virus from cell to cell, as you sit back and hope that the next sequence isn’t the rest of your life falling apart around you.  

The world is out to kill you and it won’t stop until it succeeds. 

Matt Moore is an NBA blogger who scribbles at CBSSports.com, NBCSports.com, and ESPN-affiliate Hardwood Paroxysm. He reminds you that when some eight-foot tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall and asks if you have paid your dues, the correct response is “Yes sir, the check is in the mail.” (HT: Jack Burton)

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