If the recent H1N1 flu season didn’t send you rushing out to buy hand sanitizer, then Contagion likely will. Sales should soar after the release of this medical thriller about a rapidly spreading virus that causes painful headaches, throat constrictions, seizures and then death, all within hours of exposure.
While movies about deadly epidemics have been done before (think Will Smith in I Am Legend and Matthew McConoughey in Sahara), this one is particularly disturbing because Director Steven Soderbergh doesn’t indulge in dramatic hyperbole. He resists turning all the victims into zombies or pinning the cause on a malicious industrialist. This is pure cell mutation—the kind that has happened before and could realistically happen again. The resulting infection races around the world thanks to personal contact and global travel.
From their offices at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, Doctors Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehie) track the spreading clusters. Leaving from Switzerland, World Health Organization official Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) flies to China to pinpoint the source. And in San Francisco, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) searches for a way to grow a culture for study after U.S. businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) dies shortly after returning from Hong Kong. Within hours, her son Clark (Griffin Kane) is also dead.
Sent to Minnesota to assess the situation there, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) begins organizing treatment centers in hockey rinks and other large facilities. But medical personnel are failing miserably at fighting a mutation they haven’t even identified. As well, local disease control officials don’t want to be accused of taking inflated precautions.
Meanwhile as Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) mourn the death of Beth and Clark, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) causes riots when he posts unfounded tales about natural cures for the disease. He further accuses the government and big pharmaceutical companies of holding back information in order to make money from the catastrophe.
The ensuing scenarios come across as all too possible as the population storms grocery stores in search of food, loots and burns businesses, and breaks into fights in food lines and hospital waiting rooms. Ethical issues also arise when limited medical treatment is doled out by a lottery system and one official goes against protocol by warning his wife to get out of town before the city is quarantined.
While growing numbers of body bags, a gruesome medical procedure and a shocking death scene may leave some viewers worrying about the consequences of human contact, other audience members may react differently. Given the possibility of such a situation, how could one prepare? If nothing else, I feel far more motivated to keep my hands away from my face and to restock the hand sanitizer.