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April 12, 2020

Contagion (2011)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Actors: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne

With coronavirus outbreak, people turn to film 'Contagion' - but ...

Synopsis: A deadly virus from China develops into a global pandemic.

Review: The spectre of COVID-19 looms large over this typically kaleidoscopic drama from Steven Soderbergh – echoing both his drug trafficking exposé, Traffic, and anticipating his Panama Papers dramatisation, The Laundromat.

Although some of the parallels between COVID-19 and this film’s virus, MEV-1, are striking, Contagion amplifies the threat and impact of its disease for maximum big screen effect. The horrifying length of the illness seems to be no more than a handful of days (COVID-19 is upwards of three weeks?) and it comes with an array of convulsions, foamings at the mouth and brain impairments, on top of the pneumonia, and has a 20-40% mortality rate. Therefore, it’s perhaps a film you would want to avoid if you have major coronavirus anxiety.

That said, it is a great exemplar of the ways in which coronavirus diseases spread, and a telling advert for the merits of social distancing and thorough hygiene practices. The film even opens on a blank screen and a very consumptive-sounding cough, and Soderbergh gains great mileage out of tracing the almost invisible chains of infection by focusing on hand prints on doors, the use of food and drink implements, and, of course, close bodily contact.

If you can separate the current prescience of this film from its overall worth, it’s compelling enough without being top-tier Soderbergh. As mentioned earlier, it’s another one of his episodic narratives, with multiple players, global settings and plot strands all tracing the impact of MEV-1. Tasked with charting the genesis, escalation, impact and falling off of the pandemic in a two-hour feature film package is clearly a challenge, and some elements of the drama play more convincingly than others. Soderbergh does fall into one of his old habits of copious exposition (necessarily, one might argue) with characters frequently voicing the film’s themes and morals throughout the running time.

One other puzzlement is the decision to provide Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow’s married couple with such a convoluted biographical conceit. It’s the second marriage for both of them: Damon’s character has a teenage daughter by his previous partner, and Paltrow’s character has a younger son, so when only Paltrow’s character and son die you speculate as to whether Soderbergh was trying to add a moral tinge to this as her character is seen cheating on Damon at the beginning of the film. If it is pure coincidence then why the precise backstory? Either way, it distracts from the issue at hand which is the dramatisation of the pandemic itself. Equally, Jude Law’s performance as a conspiracy theorist and peddler of fear sits awkwardly with the rest of the narrative, particularly as Law is distracting us with his attempts at an Australian accent and the bizarre, methody conceit of manufacturing some horrendous front teeth for his character.

Still, the film’s status as a harbinger for the COVID-19 pandemic is hard to resist, although Soderbergh must kick himself for not anticipating some of the peculiarities of this year’s pandemic: especially the fetish for stockpiling toilet paper, and the daily political briefings which have exposed the limitations of at least a couple of demagogues in the process. (April 2020)

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