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Monday, September 26, 2011



Come on, seven. Daddy needs a new immune system.

Contagion (n): the communication of disease from one person to another by close contact. 

There isn't much to that definition, but the word itself holds weight - you touch your face, and then touch a doorknob without even realizing it. Seven thousand other hands touch that doorknob, and then touch their faces. Which then kiss their dogs, children, lovers, wives, husbands, and so on and so forth. Without even meaning to, we touch each other hundreds of thousands of times per day. Not just one person to another one person, but one person to all other people, be it through handshakes, hugs, or doorknobs. And the most fascinating thing about Contagion are the subtle points of contact that aren't even noted in the film. 

The film itself starts with a simple illness. Simple, but with devastating effects - essentially, the immune system is crashed and destroyed, and the brain made entirely useless. It is fatal, if you're lucky (it seems). The first victim we see in the film is a married woman from Minneapolis (Gwenyth Paltrow) after her affair with a man in Chicago on her way home from Hong Kong. She coughs. And after a bartender has handled her money, we already know that the virus is spreading. And the title card on the screen says "Day 2". These aren't the first people to be sick, nor will they be the last (mostly because we need a movie, never mind the virus spreading at lightening speed). 

Contagion is, at its core, a thriller and is appropriately marketed as such. What kind of thriller it is could be a debate for an entirely different article, but at the heart of it all, you could call it a techno-thriller like Roger Ebert does - there are technical patterns that lump it into the genre, sure. Title cards displaying the times and places of the day, as such. The cheating woman's husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is immune to the virus - his fate is to watch the ones he loves around him contract it. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a blogger spreading his fear and propaganda like a virus itself, to millions of "unique followers" of his website. 

One more hint to fully unlocking the film and understanding it beneath a surface level is that "contagion" isn't strictly meant to describe the influence(za?) of the disease, but the contagion of the emotional effect on the main characters, and how that spreads. Mitch, learning that his wife may have had an affair when she caught the virus, Alan spreading his own seething virus over the internet and television... And then there are the doctors - Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne), who heads a department at the Center for Disease Control and is working on developing a vaccine with Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle). Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is assigned out into the field to track down the last point of contact that bystanders might have had with recent victims, and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) tackles the field like guerrilla warfare, using security cameras and investigative research to track the moment the virus was first spread from person to person, in a casino, in Hong Kong, with Mitch's wife. 

Contagion gets under your skin (!) and never lets go of your nerves. It's a horror film, if you look at it from the right angle. Medical thrillers, legal thrillers, they all have one thing in common with horror movies - that obsessive hunt. Here, it isn't just a hunt but a race, and not even a race against the clock, but a race against our bodies. Cities are torn down by this virus in less than a year, millions of people are dead half way through the film, and yet Steven Soderbergh's scale of the film is so miniature and personal, that we can barely contain that knowledge at the sake of the four people we're supposed to care about when they keep touching doorknobs. The film operates on the ends of its given spectrum - small and calculated personal stories of survival matching with uncontrollable epidemy and fear. The contagion isn't just in the virus itself, but the footprints its leaves as it marches from host to host.