Contagion is a film I’ve been hearing a lot about. The general comment I hear most about it is “it’s disturbing as hell. You’re going to be germaphobic and touch nothing after you see it.” Even on Reviews on the Run, Victor Lucas and Scott Jones commented on how after the movie, people rushed to the bathroom and scrubbed their hands profusely. I went into this movie expected to come out terrified of germs and ready to clean everything I own. Instead, I came out of the theatre much more terrified of people than I ever could be of germs.
The film synopsis is simple enough: you’re introduced to characters that you have an immediate emotional connection with, some of them and their loved ones die from this deadly new virus, the government health agencies try to step in and find a cure, watch people struggle as they wait for a cure. I remember this same synopsis in 1995 during a movie called Outbreak, and none of us ever looked at monkeys the same ever again. The difference between Outbreak and Contagion is in that at the end of Outbreak, you were scared of monkeys and the prospective of new kinds of bacteria and viruses kicking around. By the end of Contagion, I started looking at all the other people in the theatre getting up to leave at the same time I was and I wondered “what would they do in a situation like this?”
The main horror of the story centres on what the general population does once the virus is declared a pandemic. In short, people go berserk. Throughout the movie we are only exposed to one member of the general population who seems decent: Matt Damon’s character that, after his wife and step-son both die suddenly from the disease, discovers he’s somehow immune (and this immunity is not explored anymore, just kind of mentioned and we move on). While the other people in his city (Minneapolis, Minnesota) begin to destroy pharmacies and ransack grocery stores, Damon just does whatever he can to protect the last member of his family, his daughter.
Even though that it’s highly unlikely that only one decent man will be left in a town once a pandemic breaks out, you can’t help but reflect on what everyone around his character is doing. The most shocking scene is one where Damon’s character looks out his window and sees a couple of flashes in his neighbour’s house. Soon after, two masked gunmen exit the house. This scene was so shocking that my girlfriend sitting next to me sat wide-eyed muttering to herself “oh my god.”
Though Damon’s character is the one glimmering hope in humans, he’s far from the most interesting character. That award I proudly present to Jude Law’s character: the paranoid blogger/journalist convinced that the government is hiding all the simplest solutions to curing this virus. His blog has millions of followers, and he clearly knows it. His ego and cocky attitude actually outshine his paranoia at times and it leaves you wondering what he’s really got prioritized: exposing the truth or his own fame.
I tend not be very Hobbesian and would like to think that shit wouldn’t hit the fan as violently as depicted in this movie. At the same time, do any of us really know how we would react until we’re actually in one of these situations? The real horror of Contagion is not in the virus itself but in how it reflects the panic in people and how quickly a quiet suburb can turn into a warzone.
I went to the washroom once the film was done and, like Victor Lucas and Scott Jones, found many people taking extra care in washing their hands. They carefully went through the full procedure of soak, dispense soap, scrub palms, scrub the tops of hands, scrub the tips of fingers and under the nails, wash down to the wrist (some people were actually washing to their elbow), and rinse thoroughly. I can’t help but feel like they too weren’t just washing their hands this efficiently because they were scared to the germs. Maybe they were also washing away that bit of terrifying humanity that they know exists in them too and can cause them to snap at any moment. They may be terrified of the germs, but they’re also terrified of how much they saw of themselves on that screen, looting and killing just to survive.
Germs are scary, but the horror of how people can turn on each other at the drop of a pin is even more terrifying. I don’t know if Contagion is an “accurate” depiction of this, but it’s relatable enough that we all see what we are capable of when it comes to just making it to tomorrow.