In “Contagion,” the 2011 Steven Soderbergh drama that predicted, in eyebrow-raising, scientifically rigorous, this-could-be-happening-to-you element, precisely what’s taking place to us proper now (incompetent trash-talking authoritarian president? — that plot level will need to have been discarded for being one thing you can solely see in the motion pictures), Matt Damon, as run-of-the-mill Minnesota man Mitch Emhoff, sits in a hospital speaking to Kate Winslet, who performs the epidemic intelligence officer investigating the unfold of a mysterious virus. Emhoff’s spouse, performed by Gwyneth Paltrow, was one in every of the first folks to catch the virus and die. In case he thought his temper couldn’t get any decrease, Winslet’s investigator has information for him: Plainly the virus could have handed between Paltrow’s Beth and somebody she noticed throughout a layover in Chicago — the man she was having a relationship with earlier than she received married.
“Did we get this from him?” asks Damon, his face a daze of fury that reveals you he’s processing two unsupportable issues directly: the atrociously timed revelation that his spouse cheated on him — and, as if that wasn’t dangerous sufficient, the devastating risk that had she not cheated on him, she is perhaps alive proper now. He needs to know if that’s the case, however Winslet isn’t allowed to inform him. “Take a look at the place I’m right here,” he says in the warmth of his confusion. Then he says it once more. “Take a look at the place I’m right here!” However the place, in reality, is he? He now not is aware of which finish is up.
That, it seems, is the movie’s defining emotion. “Contagion” is a bad-dream biomedical catastrophe film whose energy is that it refuses, at each second, to be “science fiction.” The movie charts the methods a virus takes over a society, consuming away at it from the inside. The sensation it offers you isn’t simply, “Look, this horrible factor may occur.” The sensation it offers you is: All bets are off. The middle isn’t holding. We don’t know what’s coming.
That’s a sense that you just may need a few lethally infectious virus, however in the America of at present it’s additionally a sense that describes the place life was headed earlier than the coronavirus hit. The withering of the center class. The rise of Donald Trump. The rise of an insidious hall-of-mirrors media tradition that makes “actuality” only one extra TV channel you possibly can select to observe (or not). Coronavirus is a scary illness, but it surely’s additionally piggybacking on our entropy, which is another reason why it has ratcheted up the everyday-nightmare high quality of our lives. “Contagion” faucets into all of that; in case you watch it now, it’s a film that kicks you in the intestine and the mind.
Right here at Variety, we determined to launch our new House Films banner with “Contagion,” as a result of although the movie has been talked and written about ever since the coronavirus hit, it has a life-imitates-art-imitates-life resonance that has solely grown with every passing day of the pandemic.
“Contagion” is scarcely the identical movie it was in 2011, when its what-if? situation left you questioning how near actuality it truly received. It’s not even the identical movie it was six weeks in the past, now that the trajectory it describes — a nation in free fall — has been coloured in by levels. In upcoming House Films columns, we’ll suggest movies of each stripe, from each period, to expertise throughout this shelter-in-place second; a lot of them can be nice escapes. “Contagion” is completely different — a lavishly disturbing however humane thriller that refuses to offer a simple escape hatch for our anxieties. But in case you’re fearful that it is perhaps an excessive amount of of a nasty factor, don’t be. The film offers a darkish catharsis, and it reveals you a light-weight at the finish of the tunnel you possibly can imagine in.
A lot of the drama of “Contagion,” after all, now lies in the premonitory mastery with which it anticipates our present disaster. The screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, immersed himself in the medical trivialities of lethal pandemics and in studying what goes on behind the closed doorways of the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention and the World Well being Group. (Pricey trolls: Begin posting your conspiracy-theory feedback about what goes on behind their closed doorways now.) The movie’s verisimilitude is so uncanny that one in every of its essential particulars — the RO, or R-naught metric, which represents the variety of folks anybody carrying the virus will, on common, infect — earned its personal New York Instances story solely final week.
The movie’s consistency of overlap with our personal scenario is nothing in need of eerie, from the on-the-fly purchasing runs to the enforced standing aside (right here it’s 10 ft as a substitute of six), from the warnings that folks ought to keep away from touching their faces to the controversial sluggish creep of college closings (“And who stays dwelling with the youngsters? Individuals who work at shops, authorities staff, those that work at hospitals?”), from Sanjay Gupta on the TV to the obsession with an unproven (on this case, homeopathic) miracle treatment, from the rising notion that contaminated folks could be asymptomatic to the makeshift hospital services — right here it’s a transformed hockey rink — the place our bodies pile up till no graveyard can take them.
About the solely factor the movie doesn’t have is a shelter-in-place order, although Fishburne’s CDC official makes use of the phrase “social distancing,” describing it as “no hand-shaking, staying dwelling whenever you’re sick.” For a second you hear that and assume: If solely! Essentially the most telling factor that Fishburne’s stoic officer says, after a Navy admiral (Bryan Cranston) fills him in on what’s taking place, is: “Folks will panic. The virus can be the least of our worries. It’ll tip over now.”
The sense that life can tip over — our particular person lives, the collective lifetime of our society — is one in every of the reigning fears of the pandemic we’re now in the thick of. The darkest moments in “Contagion” aren’t about folks dying; they’re about the potential social breakdown bred by financial shortage. I keep in mind after I first noticed the movie 9 years in the past, my response to those scenes was one thing like, “Oh, right here comes the compulsory fighting-in-the-bread-line second.” After I noticed it lately, I assumed, “Okay, no less than we’re a good distance from that.” Then a second later I assumed: Are we? With a president who feeds on anarchy, saying something that comes into his head, the potential for all of this to go “Mad Max” actually exists. The entire world-spinning-out-of-control type of “Contagion” is dislocating, and that’s a part of its artistry.
In the finish, the film leaves you with a picture that’s haunting in its hope: Damon’s daughter is having her senior promenade — at dwelling. It’s simply her and boyfriend, dancing in the front room, which has been adorned with token promenade spangles. It’s the promenade as sheltering-in-place, a picture that whenever you see it at present says: Sure, we are able to come out the different aspect of this. However the film additionally ends by revealing, for the first time, Day Considered one of the pandemic — we see how Paltrow, the first to unfold the virus, truly caught it. It feels momentous, as a result of it’s Soderbergh’s thought of a darkish joke that can also be a warning. “Contagion” says, “We’re doing this to ourselves.” Possibly proudly owning that’s how we cease it.
“Contagion” is accessible on Hulu and for rental on iTunes, Amazon Prime and different streaming providers.