Gwenyth Paltrow, always eminently watchable, plays the innocent who is
among the first to contract the disease. She’s in Hong Kong on business
for an American firm. She has a layover in Chicago, which she utilizes for,
er, “extracurricular activities,” which doesn’t really advance the story but
does add some pathos of a different kind.
By the time she finally returns home to her loving husband, played by Matt
Damon, she is already coughing. Soon she is nauseous. Next she starts to
feel numbness is in her hands and feet, and then she faints. Soon comes the
convulsions and the foaming at the mouth. It won’t be long now.
Kate Winslett plays the doctor at the disease control center, the one who’s
supposed to come in and find out what happened, isolate the cause, develop
a vaccine, and save the world. The problem is, she’s not immune herself, and
her constant exposure leaves her just as vulnerable as everyone else.
Damon, for his part, seems to be immune, but nobody knows why.
Researchers are furiously working on various vaccines to attempt on rhesus
monkeys, but the trials, in order to be scientifically verified, cannot be
rushed. Meanwhile, as the contagion spreads, panic sets in.
This is the most realistic and harrowing part of the film. Those who are sick
suffer briefly with the knowledge of their imminent and inevitable demise,
but it’s soon over for them. As for the rest, well, they get to live in perpetual
fear of catching the dread disease. And they get to witness the false rumors
of miracle cures (naturally, something homeopathic). There’s a run on
canned food, bottled water, batteries, and dry goods, and as soon as the
supplies run short people just start taking from each other. Then everyone
goes home trying to protect themselves and their property, including the
police, fire department, paramedics, and hospital workers. And so the
chaos begins to descend. There’s trash all over the streets because nobody’s
picking it up. There are mass graves with bodies deposited by bulldozer
because no mortician wants to, well, undertake the task. Can anarchy be far
But wait, this isn’t “The Road,” and there isn’t a pall of despair over the
whole earth, as in Cormac McCarthy’s classic rendition of instant descent to
the Dark Ages. No, there’s more optimism here, about human ingenuity that
will overcome the selfishness, and people still committing random acts of
love because they’re so winsomely inconsistent.
“Contagion” doesn’t really concentrate on the horrors of millions of people
perishing almost instantly, feeling that a few personal demonstrations will
suffice, and the rest can be reported by the ubiquitous reporters. Since this
is Hollywood, the gadfly is a blogger, a man who is able to spread rumors
online without credentials or verification, and nobody can really stop him,
because he’s so confident in his false bravado that’s he managed to convince
himself of his own indispensability. Jude Law is a good enough actor to pull
off this role without seeming to be too self-consciously ironic, though the
implied criticism is clear.
“Contagion” does a very good job of building the suspense, but falls a little
flat while releasing it. Since it won’t settle for cheesy invincibility (some big
stars really die in this one), it can’t manage triumphant, either. So it’s not as
much of a crowd-pleaser as it might have been, because there’s no humor,
and no real romance, either.
But it does, at least, tell us at the end how it all began, and that full circle
will have to provide enough of a sense of completion. Bats and pigs, indeed.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephens Presbyterian Church in