Caught Contagion yesterday, and what a cheery film it is for a Sunday afternoon. It’s effectively a disaster movie, which is why I felt intrinsically drawn to it, but instead of the usual CGI-dependent bombast and high-wire thrills, this was all very low key and matter-of-fact. Steven Soderbergh is a curious and vital director; he came from the indie sector and retains that spirit, but he works within the studio system and often with big bucks and big stars. Contagion falls more closely in line with Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovitch than Che or Scizopolis, in that it has an all-star cast and is identifiably aimed at a mass audience. In fact, it sort of only works if lots of people go to see it.
The plot is simple – as simple as that of a public information film, in fact: a woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong, and dies within days of a mystery illness. This is not a spoiler. It’s in the trailer. It’s the trigger for the whole film. It turns out she has a rare form of pig-bat flu that spreads like wildfire. That’s all you need to know. As he did with Traffic, Soderbergh then joins the globalised dots and moves with ease and clarity from one place to the next, plotting the virus’s path as it starts wiping us all out. If you’ve seen Outbreak, it’s nothing like Outbreak. Although, as with that film, the scientists are the heroes. There are lots of clever scientists here – Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cottillard (see what I mean about all all-star cast?) – and for all its disaster movie tropes, it’s really a film about the emergency services. What would happen if a novel pathogen spread this fast, and this unstoppably? Well, in Contagion, we pretty much find out. It’s been praised for its accuracy and Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns worked closely with the Center for Disease Control and other experts to get it right.
In this respect, and with H1N1 still fresh in our over-active minds, it’s fucking terrifying. (Put that on the posters.) From the first cough – which occurs over a blank screen, the film hasn’t even started yet! – you’re gripping your armrest, and then feeling self-conscious about who might have gripped the armrest before you. Soderbergh shoots on high-def DV stock, and plays the whole thing muted, like Traffic, and that other global jigsaw Syriana, which he produced, allowing the enormity of the catastrophe to hit us in small jolts, not in huge set-pieces. At one point, Winslet visits the sports stadium that will be pressed into service as a hospital; the scale of the empty hall is as shocking as any frantic later shots of a busy hospital. This is clever, economical filmmaking. We see a couple of characters actually die, one of them shockingly, another of them the subject of a close-up autopsy, but the real shocks come when bodies are calmly zipped into bags. Or when they first cough. One doctor casually mentions to another that his mother died; there are no tears, we have not met his mother, but it’s shocking nonetheless. Shocking in its casual delivery.
I am not one to panic. I refused to join in the paranoia when H1N1 led to signs about handwashing being posted all over the BBC and the British Library in 2009. I wash my hands all the time anyway. (I am allergic to my own cat, so I’m forever at the sink after stroking her.) When Jude Law’s rogue blogosphere nutter – the character I most identified with, obviously, despite his terrible Australian accent (a nod to Assange?) – tries to break the media blackout on a potential herbal cure, Soderbergh and Burns are able to get a few digs in at the Government and the pharmaceutical industry. One top scientist is refused safe passage home from the frontline as the government plane is rerouted to transport a Congressman. But this is not a film about corporate dominance or even political corruption, it’s about science. It’s about viruses. It’s about human contact. It’s about air travel. It’s about globalisation and the ease with which the cells from a fluey piglet in Asia can travel to Minnesota overnight. It’s about globalisation, but it presents globalisation as a done deal. We can’t go back now. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen, and only men and ladies in white coats can save us. This is no doubt true. So we’re all going to die. Deal with it.
Contagion is a superbly effective film. Not a date movie. Not a film for the paranoid or worrisome. Just by focussing us on the way we touch everything – bars, cocktail glasses, napkins, folders, door handles, lift buttons, buses, aprons, each other – Soderbergh makes us look at the world differently. This is quite a feat. It’s done subtly, too: no dramatic close-ups of fingerprints. The writing, too, is without camp, but with deep impact. Here’s a classic line. One surgeon, doing an autopsy, finds something amiss. The other surgeon says, “Shall I call someone?” The first surgeon says, “Call everybody.”
If you can handle the truth, go and see it. It’s a classic cinematic ride. Actually, you’ve probably been to see it already after all that viral marketing.