Apocalypse Review: Contagion

It's been a while since I blogged, so I decided I might as well give myself something to talk about - this is the first in what will be a semi-regular series of reviews of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films, books, comics and anything else that reaches my notice. This one comes from a very recent film, but I'll range back over older stuff too. As well as review each one, I'll add a few notes about how the apocalypse is depicted in each case. [one_half_first]

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Contagion (Feature Film, 2011)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh Written by Scott Z. Burns Amazon US Blu-Ray/DVD Amazon UK Blu-Ray/DVD

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Review (spoilers!)

Somewhere in the world, two viruses meet and share RNA; a chance recombination that creates a new killer disease. Within days, it’s spreading across the globe. Within weeks, millions are dying and the world’s authorities are racing to find a cure as society collapses around them.

Contagion is a relatively realistic depiction of what might have happened if H1N1 or SARS hadn’t been spotted ahead of time and prevented from doing their worst. This time, the infection makes an unfortunate connection in a Hong Kong casino, and is taken to Japan, Europe and the US by business travellers, from where it rages uncontrolled across the world.

The film refuses to follow just a single protagonist, instead taking what seems a very sensible choice for this kind of global narrative: a number of characters push the story forward, all trying to stop the infection in one way or another: Matt Damon as a father with immunity to the disease, trying to protect his daughter who may not be immune; Laurence Fishburne at the CDC, running the US response to the disease; Kate Winslet as a scientist sent to Minnesota to persuade the state authorities to prepare; Marion Cotillard as a WHO official sent to Hong Kong to trace the beginnings of the virus; and Jude Law as a conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccination agitator. This approach works well, especially in the early stages of the film as we flit from city to city across the world and see how the infection begins, building tension without the need for hyperbole. The first half of the film is gripping and horrifying, using the medium beautifully, keeping the music low-key while focusing on shots of people touching things, implying all those methods of infection long before someone actually spells it out – by which time it’s too late. Something very like a subtle tilt/shift lens marks out the flashbacks to key moments during the initial infection, isolating the characters in frame without losing the surrounding space – but none of these tricks overwhelms the story, which refuses to sensationalise what’s happening even as the bodies start to pile up.

But as it goes on, the multiple-narrative approach tends to work less well; it’s hard to give each character the time they need to develop, and some strands seem to vanish entirely – the Hong Kong story virtually disappeared for what felt like half an hour. Characterisation is difficult when you only have the time for broad strokes, and as realistic as the science in this film is, the characters tend to turn into shorthand tropes: the scientist testing the cure on herself, a kidnappee developing Stockholm Syndrome, the conspiracy theorist acting like an idiot, the heroic virologist told to shut down his work but then giving it just one more try and discovering something vital, the husband who knows about the threat warning his wife to get out of town and setting off a panic because she inevitably tells her best friend. If there isn’t a TV Tropes page for the characters in this film yet, there should be.

There’s another problem with the multiple narrative approach, which it shares with anthologies: one story almost always ends up being not as good as the others. In this case, it’s almost everything to do with Jude Law and his anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, who promotes a homoeopathic remedy that doesn’t work, while claiming the actual vaccine is a lie. I’m no fan of people who endanger the lives of millions by falsely claiming that vaccines often cause conditions worse than those they protect against, but such people do at least try to give the impression of plausibility, which Law never manages. This isn’t really his fault, but rather a problem of writing. He’s been turned into a straw man: obviously wrong for no reason other than to make it clear that he’s wrong. I would have been more convinced of the danger he represents if he seemed to really have some kind of honest belief in what he was saying – if he acted as though he were the hero in his own little film, rather than an annoying crank.

There’s one final failing which spoiled the end of the film for me, and that’s the way in which it tries to be a satisfying narrative when the reality of what would happen doesn’t easily fit into the usual template of a feature film. The main narrative tension through most of the story comes from the lack of a vaccine, and the increasing horror as the disease takes its toll. And then the vaccine is found, but that’s not where the story ends. It jumps forward several months, the time needed for the vaccine to be mass produced. These would be months of terrible privation, as people feared contact, as food supplies grew short and the medical profession would be worse than decimated through their constant contact with the infected. But while do we see little bits of social unrest and a single mass grave, the long months of social decline are mainly shown by the fact that rubbish hasn’t been collected for a long time, and it doesn’t take a worldwide pandemic to cause that (people in New York, the UK and Naples have all seen this happen for much lesser reasons at one time or another). The final act of the film has little tension in it, because all it really concerns itself with is the slow process of vaccine distribution and a return to normality. The worst is already over, but stories of this length work best when the worst comes right at the end; so all we have are a serious of somewhat flaccid scenes wrapping up the various narratives and reassuring us that everything’s going to be okay now. Sure, the world’s lost many millions of people, but Matt Damon puts on a prom night in his house for his daughter, so things must be better. And Laurence Fishburne makes up for causing the panic that doubtless killed many thousands by giving his dose of vaccine to his cleaner’s son. These endings seem false and cloying, as though the only way to cope with the horror is by smearing it with treacle.

And with nothing at stake during the conclusion of the film, the epilogue that shows how the disease got its start and spread into the casino to infect Gwyneth Paltrow and dozens of others seems superfluous. The film would have vastly more impact if this ending followed a moment of great horror, illustrating how very simply that horror began – but with all risk and tension gone, all it can do is satisfy curiosity.

But nevertheless, this film still stands head and shoulders over most stories about apocalypses, mainly because it doesn’t try to turn it into an adventure. That makes it vastly more horrifying, because we can all too easily grasp how real this threat is, and that our world can be reduced to chaos by nothing more than a disease. Despite going on a bit of rant about the second half of the film, I did largely enjoy the whole thing. I just wish it hadn't turned so sentimental at the end.

Depiction of the Apocalypse

Where this film largely excels is in its depiction of a viral apocalypse. Most apocalypses in film are presented as backdrops for adventure, but this one is taken seriously and shown as realistically as they can manage, given the constraints of a feature film (which are far tighter than most people realise).

Viral apocalypses are a very unlikely candidate for a full human extinction, and Contagion illustrates why this is the case. The virus depicted in the film is nowhere near as deadly as the bubonic plague, which repeatedly left Europe mourning anything up to half its population, from late antiquity (the Plague of Justinian) to early modern times (the 1665 plague). But Yersinia Pestis is no longer a real threat; either we have evolved to deal with it, or it has evolved to be less deadly. These days, the greatest threat is from bugs that take the opportunity of mass world travel to become far deadlier than they would once have been, but even these have a mortality rate of about 1% (which the film quotes for the Spanish Flu of 1918, though the death rate from the MEV contagion in the film may well be higher). This still means many millions of deaths and economic disruption that may take decades to recover from, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

(Viral apocalypses can, though, work for populations which have been isolated from the rest of the world for a long time; witness the effect of smallpox and measles in the New World, and the often 100% mortality rate for Inuit societies that traded with passing European and American whalers. While global travel spreads disease, it also helps humanity to survive by exposing us to things we might otherwise never meet, spurring us to medical research which helps to keep us far healthier than our ancestors)

The response to the disease is only marginally less realistic: the film adopts the multiple narrative style to illustrate firstly the individual patient zeroes of several countries, and then to show various aspects of the response to the plague. The difficulty of this is covered extremely well, and anyone watching should come away with a very good sense of how such a pandemic would be dealt with if it really happened, explaining key concepts like R0 by having a character try and explain this to a bureaucrat who thinks only in terms of how much the CDC are trying to steal her budget. The only real problem is that the film necessarily has to resort to shorthand; as much as it covers an event on a global scale, each story it shows has to be condensed down to a digestible size. This means that we only see one main administrator at the CDC, who seems to have only one operative in the field in one part of the US. And surely the CDC would have more than two scientists in their lab trying to figure the virus out? But no film could cope with the vast numbers of people that would really be involved in such efforts; that they show one scientist working in a lab elsewhere who makes a vital contribution does at least give some sense of distributed effort. A TV series or novel would be better to give a deeper sense of the effort needed to fight such a disease, but Contagion has to work within very narrow limits, and does an excellent job with what time it has.