Review of Soderbergh film "Contagion" (2011)

trailer video:

I recall that director Steven Soderbergh, a few years ago, after accepting an Oscar for 'Traffic', thanked writers for making movies possible. That is prescient for a subplot of the docudrama 'Contagion', the new Warner Brothers and Participant Media “thriller” which, released 9/11 weekend, credibly convinces  us that H5N1-style bird flu viruses could deep-six western civ.   

Actually, I am ahead of myself. In the movie it is called MEV-1, as if to warn us that new animal-related flus could crop up too suddenly for us to catch them.  Indeed, in the film epilogue, there is a clever preamble for another pandemic, just after this one is somewhat controlled.

The Powers that Be do quick-step to a vaccine and get it to the public in stadiums, after a number of major cities are in shambles from corpses and rioting. It is hard to believe that a society so sacked could recover at all.

The movie does start out as a conventional thriller with plot. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) calls her hubbie (Matt Damon)  stay-at-home papa-ing in Minenapolis from Chicago OHare. She is tired from her trip from Hong Kong.  At home, about to cook Thanksgiving dinner (there is already snow in Minneapolis, which does not always happen then; I lived there for six years), she collapses with a seizure.  Pretty soon she is gone.  So is one of her kids. Mitch (Matt  Damon is just starting to look ripe as he enters his 40s) is kept in isolation, but doesn’t get sick.  Is he naturally immune by genetics?

Trouble is, the movie changes to Frontline-style documentary mode for much of the rest of its 102 minutes.  Lots of people come down with fever, cough, and seizures and die in hours.  This flu invades the brain as well as lungs (the 'real' bird fly may affect the spine but tends to the GI track besides the lungs).

Laurence Fishburn  (looking like Neil deGrasse Tyson) plays the CDC head, who is sending researchers all over the world to get specimens and get kidnapped, or others, like Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) just to get sick themselves.  He may have an ethics-violating collusion with the pharmaceuticals, to be uncovered by guerrilla blogger Alan Krumwiede (a grizzled and slightly aging Jude Law) in San Francisco.  If Alan were as high-minded as Julian Assange, that would make for better story. But he winds up trying to see a homeopathic remedy, Forsythia, to prove you can really get rich by just blogging. 

There is an early scene where he is told that blogs are 'graffiti with punctuation' and that he is not even a real 'writer'. Krumweide claims he is a “journalist”, but a true journalist isn’t supposed to be on the take either.  Soderbergh must want us to think about the “amateurism” issue and the role of underground speech and publishing in “keeping them honest”.   Krumweide will be set up and arrested; in fact, a few bloggers have been prosecuted for insider trading (going as far back as 1999), and the FTC is supposed to be making them disclose when they’re paid or given samples to review. 

There's a scene where Emhoff's family resents the authorities' insistence on cremation of disease fatalities, no burial.  But later cities are shown with mass graves and lime resembling the Holocaust.

The film is shot in “only” 1.85:1 (Soderbergh seems to prefer that) but is still shown in Imax in a few theaters. 
The story takes place in many cities.  Many actual streets (like Lake and Lyndale, a famous intersection) in Minneapolis are mentioned, but  I didn’t recognized any of the actual city (as I did with “Tree of Life”); I think Chicago was used for the snow locations.  Atlanta, New Orleans and San Francisco are used, and some of the scenery in Hong Kong and in mainland China is most effective.
The film can be compared to ABC's "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" (2006) or Daniel Percival's "Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon" for Fox.  We can compare the substance of the film to the experience with SARS in 2003, and later H1N1 in 2009-2010, which has turned out to be pretty controllable.  I could say it's inexcusable that we haven't done more work on an H5N1 vaccine, since H5N1 could probably erupt at any time ("the birds are doing that").  But H5N1 could be too variable to make a reliable vaccine. The film mentions "social distancing" as a containment strategy, along with economically destructive curfews and quarantines. The new virus, researches say, is spread by "foamites" (surfaces). There's an interesting explanation of how the "handshake" evolved: as a way of proving you didn't carry a gun.  A "High 5" is a lot safer, and less affectionate. 

We could also compare this movie to Wolfgang Petersen's "Outbreak" (1995) (Warner Bros.), which was actually shown to an AP chemistry class in Fairfax County VA when I substitute-taught. Less convincing would be a comparison to "Robin Cook's Virus" directed by Armand Mastroiana, a TV film, or the overlong Hallmark film "Pandemic" from the same director. 

See also story on "artificial" H5N1-like virus created in lab and controversy over publication on my Issues blog, Dec. 20, 2011.

Update: April 5, 2020

CNN offers a video proposing that COVID19 virus has been around for years but suddenly became more transmissible in late 2019 in China.  Actors and crew from "Contagion" film talk about it. 
In comparison to the Covid19 pandemic, the fictitious pandemic imagined in this film seems to spread more by fomites and very incidental contact, and is deadlier. It's also interesting that in the film vaccines were rationed by random drawing of birthdates. Some observers say that the fictitious virus is a combination of measles and nipah.