Back in 2011, a film with a truly impressive cast, one of the best directors at the time, and a seriously captivating premise opened in theaters to somewhat underwhelming attention. The movie was called “Contagion”, and it somewhat came and went without capturing any substantial place in the cultural zeitgeist.
Although I missed seeing the film when it first came out, I remained interested in it, although I have to say that such interest was diminishing. If a film like that was good, it should’ve captured more attention than it got, right?
Fast forward to 2017, and I was browsing through iTunes and found that “Contagion” on sale, i.e., I could get it for less than $ 4 USD. Why not, right? So I got it. Unfortunately, the film remained in my library unwatched for almost 3 years. It was sort of like what we do when we add something to our Netflix watchlist, but we ultimately never watch it (you know you’ve done it).
But then COVID-19 happened, and, all of a sudden, “Contagion” became a lot more relevant. Swiftly, it became not only an interesting film, but one that was timelier than anything else in the excessive pop culture landscape we were having access to in 2020. All of a sudden, the buzz was about either “Contagion” or “Tiger King”. And everybody was already done with “Tiger King”. Movies are an avenue for escapism in many situations. Through movies, we are able to live moments and situations that we are not able to live in real life.
But the reach of the medium is not limited to that. We are also able to relive events from the past, take a glimpse at ancient times, and sometimes, see a “what if” situation, i.e. something that could happen but hasn’t happened yet. “Contagion” seemed like a “what if” movie in 2011, and some people might have thought it seemed unbelievable back then… but not so much so in 2020.
Real-life events can drastically change our perspective of what a film is portraying. If a film tries to be realistic in its depiction of an actual event, then it has to tread lightly because the public’s suspension of disbelief can be severely affected by their familiarity with a certain situation.
Because of this, American disaster and action cinema was drastically changed after 9/11. Audiences didn’t need to imagine what would happen in a major terrorist attack anymore because they’d already seen it, and they’d already been through it. In a sense the tragedy made audiences know what to expect.
With that in mind, I was very hesitant to (finally) give “Contagion” a try. It didn’t seem to be necessary to watch a film about a pandemic at a time when I was going through a pandemic in real life. And it’s not pretty. If I wanted to see how a pandemic happens, I might as well just turn on the news.
Because of the above, it seems like any review and analysis of “Contagion” in 2020 was bound to be unfair. Anything portrayed in the film that feels even slightly different from what we’ve been through would feel off, and this is an unfortunate way to evaluate any piece of art, especially one that was made way before the time when it became tragically relevant.
Who knows what went through my head a couple of nights ago while I was browsing through my iTunes library, but I finally decided that it was time to give “Contagion” its overdue chance. And I’m glad I did, because it’s a pretty good film.
Bearing in mind that I was watching “Contagion” with the intent of conducting an in-depth review, I tried to bring in a fresh perspective, but I regret to say that I failed. It was impossible to enjoy the drama portrayed in “Contagion” without comparing it with what our life has become among the last few weeks (months?). As it stands now, the film will probably be remembered and analyzed by thinking about what level of realism it was able to show about an actual pandemic.
Source : youtube.com
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for “Contagion”, its portrayal of a pandemic is incredibly realistic to the level that I sometimes felt like I was watching the news or even a documentary as opposed to an actual film.
I assume this was probably a bit of what (underrated) director Steven Soderbergh was going for.
There are numerous characters in the film and they all seem to have vastly different storylines, which gives us a pretty wide view of the effect of this pandemic.
While Soderbergh is mostly successful in this endeavor, the movie sometimes feels like it was intended to be way longer and that a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor.
In spite of this feeling, there is enough emotional resonance to make this film worth the watch. In a time where movie stars are said to be a dying breed, a film like “Contagion” stands up and shows us that they’re not going away any time soon. The insane talent in this cast of characters bleeds off the screen, and while everyone is great in their respective roles, I would like specifically talk about two of them.
Let’s start with Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Winslet plays a tired and committed professional hell bent on finding a solution to this problem, even putting her own life at risk on numerous occasions.
In many ways, her performance is the heart and soul of the film, and her sacrifice gives the story (and the audience) a sense of hope that, because of people like her, humanity will overcome this situation. What could’ve easily been a generic character becomes so much more thanks to Winslet.
The best character of the film, however, is Alan Krumwiede, played by Jude Law. He portrays a truly despicable human being that unfortunately shares numerous similarities with so many people that are inundating the Internet in 2020. Krumwiede is a person who is in the business of spreading conspiracy theories through his well-followed blog.
His theories lead to riots and despair around the world, but it is because of Law’s fantastic performance that the audience is kept guessing whether his theories are true or not. The film seems to be leading in one direction, but then takes a twist in the third act, and it really works.
Krumwiede reminded me of so many charismatic personalities of our time. These people speak as if they know what they’re talking about in a remarkably convincing tone. Law masterfully captures this aspect of the character, which is not limited to conspiracy theorists, but countless televangelists and politicians that have the same dangerous attitude, and it is perhaps (at least in part) because of them that our world has become more divided at a time when it should have banded together over a common cause.
This brings me to the one thing that “Contagion” seemed to fail to predict about our current situation. Even though the film does a fantastic job at studying most aspects of the pandemic, there is something that was apparently impossible to predict because the mere concept would have sounded so incredibly silly: the overt politicization of the pandemic.
We are seeing numerous politicians taking advantage of the tragedy to score political points on all sides of the debate. It is because of these that we, as citizens, are constantly struggling with whether we should actually believe in the competence of our leaders to carry us through this. The leaders of “Contagion” are able to swiftly lead society through this horrible situation, while ours are regrettably failing.
Ultimately, “Contagion” works so well because it’s about humanity and not about the virus. Soderbergh smartly focuses the final moments of the film on the most humanized characters, choosing to put the audience’s attention on people over science or politics. Interestingly enough, “Contagion” tells the story of what might (or will?) happen in our somewhat near future.
The sense of resolution found in the film is not one that seems to imply that the problems are over. As a lesson, I think the film left me with the impression that this is far from over, but that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we will get there eventually.
I would have liked to have seen “Contagion” before COVID-19 and enjoy it more as a film than as a parable to our current times, but this is the card I was dealt. For what it’s worth, I do recommend the film, at this time or at any time. Art should not be held captive to the time in which it was released or watched, but it more than often is. And, just like COVID-19, we just have to deal with it.
What’s your favorite movie that deals with biological threats? Do you like 1995’s “Outbreak” more?
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You can read another great article by FilmOpinionitis about the legacy of the film “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” here.