Next up in John's Pandemic Film Festival -- "Contagion" from 2011

This movie gets the whole pandemic vibe. A troubling and mostly realistic take on how scientists and the government deal with a mysterious and fast-spreading virus.

April 19, 2020
Watching a scary movie

Dawson Fisher

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I'm having my own little pandemic film festival while I'm stuck at home, mostly because I'm curious to find out if I can learn anything about what we're going through now from watching films that have dealt with the subject in the past.

Last week I watched Outbreak, from 1995. This week, I watched Contagion, from 2011.

Because it's not that old, Contagion seems a lot more realistic and contemporary than Outbreak, and therefore more plausible.

Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Jude Law head up a strong star-studded cast. It's directed by Steven Soderbergh (Sex Lies & Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Good Night and Good Luck.) He's a serious director and this movie takes a serious, science-based approach to the idea of a virus on the loose.

The thing I think the movie really accomplishes is showing us how easily, quickly, and unnoticeably the mysterious virus spreads from person to person. Even the most casual news viewer these days knows why we need masks and social distancing. In the film, we notice the smallest moments -- a person reaching into a bowl of peanuts at an airport bar, a credit card changing hands, a person touching a doorknob or the pole on a subway car. I don't know if people in 2011 caught the threat those quick shots hinted at, but you sure will. You'll want to yell at the screen, "Jeez -- put some gloves on! Where's the hand sanitizer? Don't touch your face!"

Here's a tiny spoiler: Early in the movie, a major character dies. That's when you say to yourself, "Oh jeez, I guess anything could happen now." Contagion captures that random, scary feeling of not knowing exactly what we're in for or how serious this outbreak really is.

I could live without the subplots about a blogger, a conspiracy between the government and the pharmaceutical industry, and an affair. They seem unnecessary as we watch scientists struggle earnestly and professionally to discover a cause, stop transmission and develop a vaccine.  And even though the mayhem, vandalism, and violence in the streets make our toilet paper hoarding seem first-world quaint, you do have to ask yourself, "Could it get that bad here?"

I can't say I loved Contagion; I don't think we're supposed to love it. I think we're supposed to take it seriously and ask ourselves what we'd do if we had to deal with something like this. And now we're doing just that, so that makes the movie pretty relevant right this minute.

The film stays with you the next day. And while you're thinking about it the morning after, you won't complain one bit about spending a full 20 seconds washing your hands with hot water and lots of soap.

Read more about Contagion.

And watch the trailer, which is sort of spoily, so maybe don't watch it:


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