2 Stars — Shallow
When the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century killed an estimated 30 percent to 60 percent of the population of Europe, it implanted a traumatic memory within us. This collective fear of epidemics in general and the plague in particular is further mined as the plague’s symptoms of high fever, chills, malaise and seizure are now given to the fictional virus created by Steven Soderbergh in his film Contagion. Because of this, the film creates a visceral dread as viewers walk through the days of the epidemic with its victims.
Bringing together a quality ensemble cast, the film begins with the second day of the outbreak as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning home from a business trip to China. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is mildly concerned with her general malaise but thinks she simply caught a bug during her travel.
The next day, he is called by the school to take home his sick stepson, Clark (Griffin Kane). But when Beth has seizures and is rushed to the hospital, she soon dies, and her young son quickly follows.
Using a montage of images and newscasts, we soon realize that this is not an isolated incident, but that the World Health Organization as well as our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that something serious is attacking people throughout the world. It is then that we begin to experience the epidemic from the perspective of the professionals responsible for managing such disasters.
Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Arrington (Stef Tovar), Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and Dr. David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin) form a team who bring not only their professional expertise but their personal perspectives to bear on discovering the source and developing a cure for the epidemic. This large ensemble does make it a little difficult to follow the tale, but in the end, it also adds texture and complexity to the story.
We won’t spoil how all of this comes together or who pays the ultimate price in their efforts to resolve the mystery. The message of the film is not only about the possibility of a viral epidemic spread by birds, bats or pigs, but also about the social epidemic spread by fear and self-protection.
It is clear that in catastrophic moments, both the best and the worst of human beings are revealed. However, in this time of deep loss and fear, there is no one representing any community of faith to bring hope or comfort in the disaster, and this is a weakness that keeps the film from finding its way and leaves us both empty and depressed at the conclusion. As one man in the theater seated behind us stated loudly and disgustedly at the end of the film: “That’s it?”
» Our collective fear of epidemics is big business for pharmaceutical companies. This point of view is represented in the film by opportunistic blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Do you believe, as Alan did, that there is a conspiracy between government and pharmaceuticals? Why or why not?
» The fact that epidemics do not kill everyone is because some have natural immunity. Medical research has been focusing on increasing this natural protection even for such diseases as cancer. Where do you think we should focus our research, on treating diseases or increasing immunity? Why?
» The final scenes, which take us back to the formation of the virus, imply that it was the destruction of the forest to build the new factory that forced the bat into the roofing of the pig pen and thus created this new virus. Do you see this as fantasy or realistically possible? Do you think such agendas are appropriate in the arts, or is that the purpose of the arts — to bring social awareness and change? Why do you answer as you do?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.