I think ‘Contagion’ (2011) is the best film on diseases since ‘Outbreak’ (1995), if you don’t count the HBO film on the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, ‘And the Band Played On’ (1993). While the HBO film was based on real life events, about a bunch of scientists in the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, US, their counterparts in France, and gay rights activists, ‘Outbreak,’ based on a novel by Robin Cook, perhaps the world’s best known author of medical thrillers, was imaginary, and focused on a hypothetical situation how a deadly disease may spread from such an innocuous beginning: Someone caught a monkey in Africa and shipped it to America. Like ‘Outbreak’, the virus in ‘Contagion’ is also imaginary. Yet, following the recent spate of global pandemics, first the bird flu and then the H1N1, the reality depicted in ‘Contagion’ is more immediate, and therefore more fearsome.
The film demonstrates how a modern disease travel faster than ever in a globalised world, and how it affects a poor nation more than a richer one, and how medical experts react to the arrival of an unknown virus, and how governments react to a threat which has no vaccine. Add to that a whole lot of conspiracy theories, you have a heady thriller in your hands.
The Steven Soderbergh film, with an A-list star cast, including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Colitard, Kate Winslate and Laurence Fishbourne among others, is designed to be thriller, a medical thriller that counts down the dates (the film begins on Day 2, when a woman, carrying the new strain of virus, travels back home to US from Hong Kong), and travels the world over, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Chicago. As the film unfolds, however, it becomes more interested in the process of fighting the unknown virus and how it affect the perfectly normal social structure, and how quiet heroism of a few people ultimately saves the day in the face of imminent danger, and fine science of how a vaccine is discovered.
Like a good disaster film plot, it begins with a single family. The mother was in Macau on a business trip. Upon her return, she falls sick and dies; their young son follows, with the father and the teen-age daughter left to grieve. As they grieve, the public life around them begins to crumble as more and more people fall victim to this unknown disease.
Experts at the CDC spring into action while WHO sends an expert to Hong Kong, where the disease was first reported, to find its origin. From this point onwards, the film moves back and forth between different countries and different people with different agendas, all trying to make sense of the changing reality, and all trying to survive.
As the film slowly descends from thriller to horror territory, it explains how a new virus is born. This sequence at the end of the film is the reason why you should sit thought the entire film, and the film blames it on development.
A mining company clears the forest somewhere in China, and a bat, which is ill, is deprived of its home. The bat flies away and lands on a banana plant. It eats a banana and carries a part of it as it flies away to a nearby pigsty. A piece of banana the bat was carrying falls on the ground and a piglet eats it. A few days later, the piglet is sent to a five star hotel in a Macau casino. As the head chef prepares the pig for dinner, he is invited to meet a certain American woman in the lobby. No time to wash his hands, he wipes his hands in his apron and shakes hands with the lady.
That was Day 1. On Day 2, the woman flies back to the US, after meeting several people on her way, and spreading an unknown virus on her wake.