Contagion: when nightmare becomes the reality

Rahat Karim | Published: 00:00, Mar 29,2020

Rahat Karim, Contagion, corona, covid-19, viral outbreak, pandemic, epidemic, Stephen Soderbergh

In 2011, Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Contagion’ which has become very much relevant as the world is going through a pandemic and the movie is hauntingly similar to today’s reality. The movie shows how deforestation and destroying habitats of animals can create viruses that has potential to claim millions of lives, writes Rahat Karim

CONTAGION means the transmission of disease from one person or organism to another by close contact, touch or by air. We can relate this phenomenon with today, as the world is facing another grim time, as the people are at an uncomfortable standpoint — shocked, scared and terrified.

With every passing minute the death toll is rising around the world. Covid-19 pandemic has crossed borders and reached our home Bangladesh. Till now death rates are rising and cure is yet to be found. In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, the citizens are even at more risk of being infected.

Storytellers throughout time has found themselves in similar situations; from Ernest Hemingway in the 1920 Spanish flu to William Wordsworth in the 1820 cholera outbreak and these two came after another plague outbreak in the 1720. Coincidence or not its 2020 and another pandemic is happening. 

As public gatherings are suspended including movie theatres, this gives us an opportunity to watch some films on epidemics. There are a lot of films about viral outbreaks but nothing comes as close to today’s situation as ‘Contagion’ does. The film feels like reality rather than fiction. As if, the director, Stephen Soderbergh, while directing this movie portrayed the reality of 2020 back in 2011.

Steven Soderbergh is the icon of indie films. From directing Sex, Lies, and Videotape when he was 26 to winning the academy to Palme d'Or, he has been stunning throughout his career. His movies have been focused around a number of themes and some of them are: identity, vengeance and sexuality. Stevens’s notable films are Ocean's Eleven, Magic Mike and Logan Lucky. Contagion was his 9th film which is receiving global response after nine years of its release.

Contagion starts with a coughing sound and a view of the inside of an airport. Here we meet the character of Beth Emoff played by Gwyneth Paltrow, she is also the patient zero. She is flying from Hong Kong to Chicago; from the texts in the scene, the audience will learn that it is day 2 of the epidemic. After she came home in Minnesota, she is greeted by her husband and her son.

Between days 2 to 3 we see shots of people from London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. There we see people being infected and roaming around the city and touching things without understanding the consequences fully. By day 4 Beth felt sick and has epilepsy. After taken to the hospital and despite the doctors’ effort – she died very quickly. Her husband in the movie, played by Matt Damon could not comprehend the nature of her death and the doctors also could not elaborate about what exactly killed his wife.

On the following day, the audience meet some other important characters who will define the perspective of the movie: Beth’s husband, a journalist and conspiracy theorist who is trying to make profit off the epidemic, an epidemic intelligence office from World Health organization and a top official of the centre for disease control and prevention. These characters help the plot to unravel the political economy of the epidemic.

During the journey towards the cure, the director masterfully shows the human suffering and condition of the world. The film also uses several interacting plot lines. Contagion makes good use of the multi-narrative ‘hyperlink cinema’ style which has been popularized by a number of Soderberg’s films.

As the film moves forward it counts the day with further developments of the epidemic. The more days go by the casualties of the pandemic sky rocket. People are panicking, doctors’ trying to help the sick but there are more and more patients in every second. The politicians are frightened about their votes and quick decisions to handle the epidemic are stuck in bureaucratic complexities. Also, they hide the true information and statistics from the ordinary people making them more agitated and frightened. Meanwhile, the journalist makes millions by selling a drug that he claims healed him after being infected.

By this time, the epidemic spreads throughout the planet and military are on the roads. People are home quarantined and shortage of daily necessities are acute. People are on the streets fighting for goods. The economy is collapsing and people are suffering.   

The climax of the movie starts when most of the important characters meet their resolution: for the journalist karma awaits, a doctor’s journey to cure when members of his own family is ill and for the husband of the patient zero, living alone with a burden.

The resolution of the film comes at day 135, as you can imagine it’s a total disaster by now. There are severe shortages of coffins and people are dumped in a mass grave. A cure has been found but is still stuck at because of politicians and big pharmaceuticals. As for the people, they are surviving in despair, hoping they could survive another day.

The acting of most of the characters of the film is fabulous as all the artist are A-list performers, they depicted the emotions perfectly, they portrayed fear, love and pain during such a horrifying event that could be felt by the audience. I believe the multi-narrative storytelling is smooth in the film because of two factors. The first, the near-perfect editing work by Stephen Mirrione and the second, the adrenaline rush due to the EDM music composed by Cliff Martinez.

The Cinematography has a very realistic feel to it also at the same time very cold too. While representing the sorrow and sadness of these horrifying events, it perfectly captures the emotions of people during the pandemic. The film was shot by using Red Digital Cinema Camera Company's RED One MX digital camera. This fictional movie but, very much real now, was shot by Peter Andrews.

Because of the wonderful production design the film is shot at different locations but has a very rhythmical montage to it. Having so much locations and culture to depict the costume design was wonderfully done and has a very natural feel to it. 

The film is very much relative to our time. A pandemic is here and it’s not a time to panic despite the fear. In the last scene of the movie the director shows how this pandemic all started and the movie ends with a shot of day one. It all comes down to the greed of corporations, deforestations and destroying habitats of other animals.

Rahat Karim is a student of University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh

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