Strong Cast in a Compelling Medical Thriller From Steven Soderbergh
The presence of well-known actors — Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard — in a fine ensemble cast gives a big boost to the quality of viewer experience in Contagion (2011), an emotionally and intellectually involving film directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven). There are multiple plot threads, but they are all skillfully pulled together to make the movie quite satisfying.
Pandemics have long been one of the scourges of humankind: examples include the Black Death in the 14th century and the Spanish flu of 1918. Modern medicine has come far in dealing with such things, yet we were all alarmed by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and H1N1 swine flu in 2009. What Contagion does is to convincingly depict a plausible chain of events where a new highly contagious disease suddenly surfaces and within months infects millions of people around the globe.
In the movie, victims of the disease initially feel as if they're getting a cold or ordinary flu. But soon there are seizures, and 25 percent of the victims die within three or four days. Autopsies reveal inflammation of the membranes enveloping the central nervous system, as in meningitis, and inflammation of the brain, as in encephalitis. The fictional bug that causes the disease is designated Meningoencephalitis Virus One (MEV-1).
The film never gives a final count of how many people are killed by MEV-1, but at one point late in the movie, a newscaster claims that the death toll is up to 26 million.
The Devil Is in the Details
Much of Contagion focuses on personnel from Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control (CDC). One of the heroes is Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a first responder who flies to Minneapolis and sets up a medical facility in a National Guard armory to deal with the initial outbreak. The other hero is Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who's trying to develop a vaccine. Another key character is CDC Deputy Director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne). The CDC workers deliver quite a bit of exposition, but this actually makes the film more interesting.
The movie's beating heart is a Minneapolis blended family of four: Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), his wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), his daughter from a previous relationship, and her son from a previous relationship. On the way home from a Hong Kong business trip, Beth cheats on Mitch by having sex in Chicago with an old flame.
The film's villain is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a San Francisco Internet blogger with 12 million readers. He claims the new disease can be treated with forsythia, which in real life is a shrub whose fruit has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries and does appear to possess some antiviral properties.
The movie also has a subplot involving Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. She ends up being held hostage in a village in China's Guangdong province.
The last part of Contagion shows the origins of MEV-1: how it came from bats, then moved on to pigs and finally to humans in a Macau casino.
A PSA and UltraViolet
The Contagion DVD contains the two-minute "How a Virus Changes the World," which is essentially a public service announcement. It's an amusing educational short on what happens when nasty viruses get loose in the world and what we can do to minimize their impact. One of the most effective things we should do is simply to frequently wash our hands.
Packaged with purchased copies of the DVD is a redemption code permitting access to an UltraViolet digital copy of Contagion. UltraViolet is a digital rights authentication and licensing system through which consumers can stream or download content to devices such as a computer, Android, iPhone and iPad.
DVD Release Date: January 3, 2012
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Content and Some Language