Soderbergh: Contagion (2011)
Contagion is the spiritual sequel to Outbreak, responding to the rise of coronaviruses in the early 2000s much as Outbreak responded to the rise of ebola and haemorrhagic fever viruses in the early 1990s. For that reason, Outbreak is quite uncanny in how it anticipates the features and pacing of COVID-19, since it also revolves around a novel coronavirus. In this case, the virus is MEV-1, and patient zero is Beth Emhoff, played by Gywneth Paltrow, an American who contracts it in China and then brings it back to the United States. From there, it spreads over the entire globe, and decimates a large proportion of the Earth’s population, causing severe respiratory distress that initially kills a staggering 90% of people who get infected. As the virus accelerates, Soderbergh quickly moves beyond Beth and her family to focus on a diverse range of characters involved in its containment – most notably Dr. Erin Mears, an Epidemic Service Intelligence officer, played by Kate Winslet; Dr. Ellis Cheever, a senior official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, played by Laurence Fishburne; Dr Ally Hextall, a researcher with the CDC, played by Jennifer Ehle; and Dr. Leonora Orantes, an epidemiologist with the World Health organisation, played by Marion Cotillard.
Whereas Outbreak depicts the transmission to patient zero as part of a linear narrative, Contagion starts on Day 2, producing an epidemiological sublime in which the entire film is spent trying to trace back the original path of the virus during its first critical twenty-four hours in human hosts. Unlike Outbreak, there is no framing device or critical distance outside the pandemic here – the film opens when the virus has gained a foothold in the human population, and ends as soon as it has been contained, without spending any time on the aftermath or long-term repercussions. This shift in focus makes for a natural pairing with Soderbergh’s fascination with information flow, and Cliff Martinez’ pulsing electronic score, since the whole film is effectively trying to trace the transmission of information – viral data – in a single cough. Whereas Outbreak more or less presented its narrative from a series of individual perspectives, Contagion concedes that the first stages of a pandemic are too rapid and drastic to be processed on either an individual or institutional level, resulting in a series of eerie scenes when medical personnel are stuck in a lag between the progress of the virus and their own data: “Some people get sick and they live, some people get sick and they die.”
All these features turn Contagion into a new kind of viral ensemble drama, in which the connection between characters is more diffused and distended than in Outbreak, but also more vital and visceral. As with the ebola-like virus in Outbreak, the corona-like virus here first presents itself as a violation of the nuclear family and a traversal of American borders, since Beth brings the virus back to her husband Mitch, played by Matt Damon, after a tryst with a Chinese lover in Macau. Unlike Outbreak, however, Contagion disposes of this trope as quickly, peremptorily and unsentimentally as Soderbergh depicts Paltrow and her son dying – coughing one minute, and being dissected into viral data by a Stryker Saw the next. Similarly, whereas the opening credits of Outbreak traced a sublime progression from Level 1 to Level 4 Biosafety laboratories, the Level 4 layout is integrated quite seamlessly into the broader style and sweep of Contagion, which doesn’t focus at all on the threshold between Level 3 and Level 4 spaces. Here, Level 4 protocol is seen primarily as a repository of valuable information, rather than a site of potential transmission, which makes it seem more continuous with the information (and misinformation) flow that the virus leaves in its wake.
In fact, Soderbergh primarily presents the virus as informational terms – as an entity that continually sheds information, which means that information in the Level 4 laboratory isn’t as privileged or sublime as in Outbreak. For that reason, Contagion is perhaps the best pandemic film at capturing the disorientation of a virus emerging in real time, as expectations are revised by the day, hour and minute, producing a compressed and intensified temporality. At times, the pacing of the film seems more attuned to the mutation and reproductive cycle of the virus, rather than the human response, with one scientist rightly observing that “it’s figuring us out faster than we’re figuring it out.” While Contagion is significantly shorter than Outbreak, it also needs this compression to include more, condensing the entire world into a real-time simultaneity whose action unfolds in a pellucid cusp between day and night, bathing every character in cool fluorescence as they anxiously await what the next morning will bring. To that end, Soderbergh sets most of the action in disease laboratories, centres for disease control, or in spaces of mass transit, while situating the few outdoor scenes at dawn, dusk or against wintry landscapes, thereby removing any clear sense of diurnal progression, and destabilising the viewer’s circadian rhythm to present a timescape determined by the virus.
Throughout Soderbergh’s career, this cool palette has typically been associated with informational density – and here it also serves as an aesthetic response to scientific data and dialogue that are impossible to parse in passing, as the virus totally floods his mise-en-scenes. This crisis isn’t reduced to scientists trying to map data, but regular people trying to perform contact tracing by mapping where they place their fingers at every second of the day – an impossible degree of conscious control over the body that eventually speaks to the body’s own finitude, both conscious and unconscious, in the face of viral invasion. Time and again, Soderbergh, like Peterson, emphasises the limitations of cinematic media in dealing with this informational density. At one point, we hear that “the virus is too small to be seen on a video camera,” while another scientist laments the fact that Hollywood never focuses on microscopic predators: “You can put a plastic shark out and people stay out of the ocean, but it’s not the same for a medical label.” Like Outbreak, too, Contagion realises that digital media is the best tool we have for mapping viral data, but Soderbergh’s attitude is both more and less optimistic than Peterson’s, since he is filming at a much later moment in digital evolution.
On the one hand, Soderbergh is clearly sceptical about blanket claims regarding the efficacy of digital media. The main proponent of digital media in the film is Alan Krumwiede, a blogger played by Jude Law, who continually lambasts the limitations of print media, while positioning himself as the messianic spokesman for the virus: “When I turned on my computer this morning, I had over two million unique users looking for the truth.” At first, Krumwiede seems like he might be a prophetic figure, or a viral seer, offering one conspiracy theory after another. However, he eventually brokers this anti-authoritarian stance to link up with a corporation trying to monetize the virus by offering an elixir called Forythia, while propagating anti-vaxxer platitudes to the masses even as the American government grows closer to a real vaccine. Soderbergh is thus unwilling to simply take digital media at face value as a novel or revelatory medium, as occurs more in Outbreak, but even so Soderbergh still concedes the real value of digital culture in mapping a pandemic as well. Virtually all the technologies used to map the virus are digital – the imaging machines used to deduce its surface, the security footage in Macau that captures a critical cough at a roulette table – while emotional moments are typically deflected back into the digital flow too, as when Soderbergh moves from a traumatic scene at a funeral home to the very first close-up of a mobile phone.
Of course, the virus also depends on digital transmission in a more literal sense, since it’s partly transmitted on the surface of people’s fingertips. As a result, people have to think of their bodies, literally, as digital interfaces, in order to manage and monitor what they are doing with their fingers at every moment of the day. This convergence of artificial digital technology with human digital technological is where Soderbergh situates his own digital aesthetic, which doesn’t simply focus on global data (as occurs with the blogger) and doesn’t simply focus on specific data (as occurs in most of the scientific labs), but charts the way that impersonal global patterns impact our experience of the human body – especially the female human body. For one of the most original aspects of Contagion is the way that Soderbergh positions the female body at the forefront of his digital mapping aesthetic. While men play all kinds of roles in stopping the virus, four women pioneer it at the very front line – Beth (Paltrow), who brings it back to the United States in the first place; Erin (Winslet), who contributes crucial data about its structure before dying from it; Ally (Ehle), who deliberately infects herself to test a vaccine, in order to bypass the long wait for proper clinical trials; and Orantes (Cotillard), who is held hostage in a Chinese town until she procures a dose of vaccine.
All of these transitions are extremely rapid, turning the female body into the only site and surface that is sensitive enough to reflect the pace of the virus. Beth dies almost immediately – Paltrow is only in the film for about ten minutes – while Orantes is abducted as soon as she arrives in Macau. While we see much more of Erin, Soderbergh elides both her infection and death – we cut back to her coughing in a motel room at one point, and then back to her burial in a mass grave slightly later. However, the most dramatic time lapse in the film, and the biggest cut, comes when we shift from Ally infecting herself with the vaccine, to the distribution of the vaccine, as Soderbergh completely removes any account of how she dealt with the infection. This convergence of the female body with viral transmission suggests that a virus cannot be resolved through the traditional military-industrial rhetoric of defending hearth and home, explaining why Damon’s character, Mitch, grows less prominent as the film proceeds. Forced to protect himself and his daughter after his wife and stepson die, Mitch would be the main character in a military or home invasion drama, but he gradually fades from view here, spending most of the film either holed in up quarantine, or sheltering in his home with his daughter, unwilling and unable to venture too far into the surrounding streets.
Like Outbreak, Contagion realises that a virus demands a military-immune response, rather than a military-industrial response. However, Outbreak couldn’t process this response beyond the violation of small-town American life, abruptly halting the progress of its ebola-like virus after it nearly took out an idyllic hamlet on the Californian coast. Contagion ends with a much more searching vision of the role that military-industrial masculinism plays in viral transmission, presenting us with a penultimate scene that, once again, could easily be the closer in a more traditional invasion drama. Unable to prepare his daughter for a regular prom night, Mitch hosts prom in their own home, consolidating his paternal authority as the soundtrack shifts, quite incongruously, to U2’s “With or Without You” – a grating moment of Dad Rock that initially seems like we might end out the film on this vision of hearth and home as the domestic arm of the American military-industrial complex, and its masculine heroics.
In the final twist of Contagion, however, Soderbergh chooses this very moment to finally move back to Day 1 of the pandemic, as Martinez’ score abrades Bono, and takes us to the original spillover – an event that even the most paternal assurances of the military-industrial complex can’t fully guarantee, and that the film’s own digital textures can only partly evoke. The compression and brevity of this abrupt ending totally skewer the reflective complacency of Mitch’s final moment with his daughter, while cautioning us against imagining the post-pandemic recovery of the United States as an act of remasculation, given the role that female bodies have played at the forefront of the crisis. In its final moments, Contagion understands how and why pandemics both demand and defy the rhetoric of the American military-industrial complex, which finally feels like the real subject matter of the film, part and parcel with Soderbergh’s rejection of the American entertainment complex a few years later in his retirement from cinema. No doubt this military rhetoric is still there in the background of Contagion, but the film consistently gravitates towards scenarios where women are forced to take on the burden of militaristic male protectionism, while all the major innovations and breakthroughs come from women putting their bodies on the line. In the end, this is what permits Soderbergh to shift and morph from military-industrial to military-immune thinking – one of many reasons why Contagion just might be the greatest pandemic film ever directed.
This was a brilliant article. You put to words thoughts I didn’t even know I had about the film (ie. distortion of time through shooting times, colour grading and editing) and ideas I definitely had not thought of (ie. the film’s quasi-feminist agenda). Keen to see what direction pandemic thrillers will take next.
Thanks – that’s really kind of you – and I’m also curious about the future of pandemic thrillers!