I detest the movie Outbreak. There are many reasons I could list here, but let’s just focus on the one completely stupid, far-fetched, ridiculous reason I always tell friends (and yes, oddly, this movie does come up more than one might expect—or perhaps I just constantly bring it up): the ending. All they had to do to cure a horrendous hemorrhagic virus was to find one flippin’ monkey in someone’s hydrangeas? And voila! A vaccine in two days? Hate to break it to you, but that’s absurd.
But this was the ’90s. And a large outbreak of Ebola (the basis for the movie’s “Motaba” virus) had just occurred in 1995 that killed 250 people in Africa. So Hollywood was more interested in providing a (somewhat) happy ending to a movie focused on a much-discussed, horrific disease than ensuring scientific authenticity. Word of advice: don’t Google Ebola images.
Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion, on the other hand, is the de-Hollywoodized Outbreak. Its goal is to realistically show the development, the spread, and the impact of a virus and its induced societal fear. In writer Scott Z. Burns’ hands, the focal virus is a novel strain of influenza, here called “MEV-1.” From the first infections, including Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) until the global pandemic weeks later, epidemiologists (those who study disease impact within populations) and scientists fight to ebb and ultimately cease the spread.
The movie is at its best when we follow epidemiologists Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) and lab director Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle). It is fascinating to be part of their investigations to find the source of the infection and to identify and to quarantine those exposed. With rapid editing, an adrenalized score from Cliff Martinez, and close-ups of everyday, germ-spreading items (the bar nuts, our credit cards, the doorknobs), Soderbergh turns an uber-realistic, science-y film into a frightening and overambitious thriller.
However, when the narratives for Winslet and Cotillard’s characters are abruptly truncated midway, the film loses its focus. Instead of continuing the investigations, we transition to the governmental response, the inundated medical facilities, and the public’s panic. Except for moments dealing with individual characters, the film becomes too broad, too unfocused. Much of this also has to do with the completely distracting character, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). This health blogger becomes a somewhat pandemic sage—where millions of people visit his site for conspiracy theories. This character is an obvious attempt to demonstrate the effect of online social interaction (and be able to say Twitter and Facebook) on offline crises. But instead of focusing on viral fear, we spend most of the time staring at Law’s crooked, prosthetic tooth.
Obviously, great care was taken to ensure the plausibility of Contagion’s science. So much so that often it feels less like a movie, and more like a public health exercise. But in Soderbergh’s adroit hands, that is the point. It is meant to feel real—except for the fact that this reality is filled with Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, and Jude Law. There is no vaccine developed in two days. There is no monkey. But so real that during the movie you find yourself paying attention to everyone who coughs and the number of times you touch your face.
And may make you think twice about not getting that flu shot this year.