Contagion, the latest film from chameleonic director Steven Soderbergh, is many things: a so-called hyperlink movie (in its use of globally-interwoven plotlines and a vast ensemble cast à la Traffic), a post-Katrina indictment of bureaucratic ineptitude in dealing with disasters, a chronicle of Internet-fueled mass hysteria, and a chronicle of various disparate individuals struggling to make sense of their lives in the wake of a calamitous event. The calamitous event is a disturbingly fast-moving pandemic of international proportions -- dubbed the MEV-1 virus -- and the massive cast consists of afflicted patients, public health officials, and medical scientists working on a cure. As such, the film fits neatly into the genre of “medical thrillers” or “disease epics,” and it is this status as a genre movie that I want to explore here.
Though perhaps not as well-recognized as its cousins the mystery thriller or the disaster movie, the disease movie is a genre governed as much as any by conventions and codes. Contagion fuses these generic conventions with a subtler auteurist side, producing a strange little thriller that, all along its way, flirts with formula while suggesting a darker, odder, more human reality buried behind the sad eyes of the actors. I want to go through a few of the thematic elements of the genre, one by one, to reveal the myriad ways in which Soderbergh brings them to cinematic life. Here are a few:
Patient zero. The disease thriller is almost always what I would call a genealogical movie. It is concerned with tracing the origins and lifespan of a character, its morality, its habits. What makes these movies so unique is that the crucial character is the disease itself. We see the symptoms it causes, but what we are most concerned about is where it came from, and -- almost always -- what human flaw led to its devastating spread. This is where the archetype of the “patient zero” comes in -- the first human to get the disease, and -- for better or worse -- the one to blame for the millions of deaths that follow. My first exposure to the concept of “patient zero” was, quite tellingly, through a prime example of disease-movie filmmaking: the AIDS epic And the Band Played On, which, like Contagion, simultaneously traces the devastating effect of the disease on individuals and the ambitious and somewhat self-serving attempts of the medical establishment to identify and cure it. In that film -- which is admittedly imbued with a much more historical, humanistic spirit than Contagion -- the figure who acts as the patient zero for North America is Gaëtan Dugas, an extremely promiscuous French-Canadian flight attendant who travels the world, blithely spreading HIV through sordid sexual encounters. We are meant to judge him, to shake our heads at his unthinking vanity, to reframe AIDS not as the product of indifferent viral mutations, but rather as an extension of human hubris -- something we did to ourselves. That And the Band Played On is also deeply sympathetic to sufferers of AIDS is one of that film’s contradictions. Our sympathy for suffering is unbounded, provided we always have someone, somewhere, to blame. In Contagion, the patient zero figure is incarnated by Gwyneth Paltrow, playing a rich, adulterous wife who comes into contact with some dubious pig blood on a business trip to Hong Kong. Though she is never reduced to Fu Manchu levels of villainy, we in the audience come to resent her for her happy ignorance in spreading the disease. In this respect, Contagion perfectly incarnates the genre trope: it moves along as a detective story, with a morally flawed human being as the single perpetrator.
Panic. In the wake of the early outbreak of the disease, mass panic spreads. As in other disease movies, we witness the agitation of the hoi polloi as they feverishly squirrel away supplies and chase after dubious cures. In Contagion, though, this panic is mediated by, well, the media -- in particular Internet media such as blogs that disseminate (often dubious) information at lightning speeds.
Spread of the disease. The MEV-1 disease is quite nearly personified in this film; mutating to exploit our biological weaknesses, it careens through entire societies, reproducing and spreading like a morally-coded miasma. The spread of the disease is presented as an abstract force, a gravitational momentum quite poorly resisted by the human impulse towards control. In particular, it spreads through social contact -- interpersonal gestures like handshakes or touching of the face that the movie goes to great pains to stigmatize -- and as such the film is a thoroughly modern excavation of social networks. The disease spreads, but only because it is able to colonize the ways in which we are all already connected.
Spread of information. Acting as a foil to the spread of the disease, there is an ethically-righteous spread of accurate information about the disease, running from the very first clinicians on the front lines all the way to the highest levels of the military and the public health establishment. Like the disease, this information-pattern -- this web of medical knowledge that provides the only hope of a cure -- spreads via our social networks, jumping from one person to another. The disease is only controllable once this information is disseminated widely enough to counterbalance the parallel spread of the disease itself. When information fails to spread adequately, as in the case of bureaucratic/homophobic hurdles hindering awareness of AIDS, or in the case of misguided cures transmitted through the blogosphere, the disease spreads faster. In effect, these thrillers thematize the idea of a signal-to-noise ratio. The signal is comprised of medical benevolence, well-reasoned caution, scientific elan, and the will of common people to take care of each other. The noise is comprised of panic, greed, mob mentality, denial, and human miscalculation.
Dignity in death. For disease thrillers to truly instill fear in the viewer, someone important has to die. But there is little pathos in watching a craven wretch, coughing and bleeding and vomiting, keel over in the middle of a street. These films need a martyr, a person to die with dignity and grace, with full lucid awareness of their victimhood, and yet without an embrace of that victimhood. In Contagion (spoiler alert), that role is played by Kate Winslet, a saintly Epidemics Intelligence Agent, who, like a diligent detective, burrows towards the disease until she gets burnt by it. She is one of the few wholly innocent victims in a film that favors moral ambiguity and stigmatizes human social behavior as not just lowly and incompetent, but as an actual physical vector for the spread of the disease. Her last dying gesture -- stranded in a gymnasium with hundreds of other moribund souls, she tries and fails to pass a blanket to another patient -- is the ultimate stroke of pathos that seals our fear of the disease.
Ignorance. Yet another parallel spread is the spread of misinformation. Here, that is incarnated by Jude Law, playing a polemical blogger who claims -- mendaciously -- to have found his own cure for the disease, just so he can raise the price for a cabal of pharmaceutical investors. For a while, his scheme threatens to derail the countervailing efforts of doctors and scientists to control the disease.
The cure. This is the Holy Grail of disaster thrillers, the equivalent of a secret talisman to be found by an action hero, or the final clue to a murder mystery to be solved by a detective. It is the object of risk-taking, sacrifice, compromise, ambition, and holy recklessness. In Contagion, the cure is found by two scientists -- played by Elliott Gould and Jennifer Ehle -- who endanger their own health and the health of others in order to run dangerous experiments towards finding a vaccine. Their rashness is motivated more by personal self-interest -- the hope for a Nobel prize, say -- than by a desire to help the suffering millions, but the fact that their efforts are rewarded shows that the film is on their side. As in many disaster thrillers, doctors have to act like action heroes in order to have any hope of success.