Contagion is a movie about what good people do when faced with very nasty circumstances. Do they run? Do they hide? Do they fight? Each of the main characters, roughly taken, does each of those things. The film is a brusquely realistic treatment of how a modern epidemic would play out. The very first thing heard in the theater is the cough of Beth Emhoff, the first infected, as she eats peanuts in O'Hare Airport while talking on her cellphone to the man she is cheating on her husband with. In two short days, she collapses dead in her home. In a very short time, the plague has not merely infected Chicago, but has spread throughout the world. By the end of the film, millions are dead. The CDC and other global agencies struggle first to contain the disease, then to control panic, and finally – desperately – to create a cure.
Fundamentally, the film is a case study of individual and group psychology and moral character when faced with the breakdown of society. The different characters – Beth Emhoff's husband Martin (Matt Damon), Dr. Ellis Cheever, Dr. Erin Mears, Dr. Ally Hextall – will react in different ways and in different circumstances. Some are driven to despair, others to looting, others to fight for a cure amidst daunting and seemingly impossible odds. Others, like Alan Krumweide, spread fear and panic through conspiratorial weblogs, encouraging homeopathic medicine instead of vaccination. Others, like Martin Emhoff, seek to protect at all cost what matters most: his only surviving child.
But, societally, the moment panic sets in and fear/uncertainty abound, all law falls to pieces. I was immediately reminded of Giovanni Boccaccio's medieval masterpiece, the Decameron, which is set amidst the outbreak of the Black Death in 14th century Italy. Boccaccio recounts:
“In this extremity of our city's suffering and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased and all but totally dissolved, for lack of those who should have administered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead or sick, or so hard bested for servants that they were unable to execute any office; whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes.”
The movie Contagion could have been a cinematic re-telling of the very events that occur in the Decameron's prologue (go read it all here).
Plague, clearly, is not new to mankind. Rather, we live in a very unusual time (from the standpoint of the rest of human history): we have really not had a significant plague or epidemic in the Western world for the past couple hundred years. Plagues and pestilence have an awful and ugly habit of making us consider our own mortality. With all of the optimism about human progress from atheists that think this life is "it," this movie should leave us somewhat disingenuous about our confidence in our time on this earth and, instead, cause us to consider how our behavior might look in the eyes of the Almighty. In that way, a movie like Contagion might bring to mind that classic formula used on Ash Wednesday to impose ashes: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris - “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
Cinema Divinite Rating: 6.5 out of 10