Back in 2011 ‘Contagion’ hit cinema screens focussing on the cold hard facts of possible pandemic situation. Of course this wasn’t the first film to explore such issues. With both Pacific Liner (1939) and Outbreak (1995) treading similar ground. However, it is Contagion that audiences are now revisiting in their droves as Coronavirus sweeps across the globe. And with good reason, as the film feels all too familiar in our current situation.
While Contagion features a fictional MEV-1 virus, that is far more deadly than COVED-19. It is the films reflection of the social, media and personal effects of pandemic that speak volumes. Echoing many of the global lessons that could have been rectified after previous pandemics. While in turn asking us all to explore our personal and social roles in preventing further outbreaks.
Steven Soderbergh’s film was praised on release for jettisoning the usual Hollywood disaster movie cliches in its exploration of a possible pandemic. Choosing to deliver a far more socially led exploration of how a potential global outbreak would effect our lives. Providing a multi layered narrative that explored scientific, social and media responses in a society where fear foreshadowed social breakdown.
One fascinating part of this exploration is the films reflection of the newly emerging landscape of social media and viral news. Its role and inherent dangers during social crisis placed into the hands of one character, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). A man who embodies the slowly evolving social media and conspiracy theory landscape of 2011. Reflecting a danger that may have been in its infancy nine years ago. But now looms large in a world where personal opinion often masquerades as fact. Interestingly Roger Ebert commented on this as being a distraction within the films narrative back in 2011.
One aspect of the film is befuddling. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a popular blogger with conspiracy theories about the government’s ties with drug companies. His concerns are ominous but unfocused. Does he think drug companies encourage viruses? The blogger subplot doesn’t interact clearly with the main story lines and functions mostly as an alarming but vague distraction.Roger Ebert (September 7th 2011)
A clear example of how our relationship to media has changed in a relatively short space of time. As societies reliance on social and viral media has influenced public debate and belief. Whether truthful or fantastical in construct and delivery. While politicians have also learnt to use quick and simple media slogans and dubious facts in ensuring the furthering development of political ideologies over social realities.
But let us return to the virus at the heart of the film and its reflection of potential social collapse. Contagion was released following both the SARS outbreak of 2003 and the Swine Flu epidemic of 2009. And therefore it is no surprise that the film focusses on the transmission of a potentially deadly virus from animals to humans. Or that the core narrative now so closely resembles the spread of COVED-19 across the globe. As the lessons of both SARS, MERS and Swine Flu continue to fall on deaf ears globally. With Contagion highlighting the dangers of animal to human transmission that could have been a global priority long before COVED-19. Particularly the human obsession for industrial meat production and live animal markets. Where the celluloid warning of Soderbergh’s film continues provide its most powerful message for social change.
There are also similarities held within the films reflection of possible social shut down and the epidemic we are now battling. Scenes that may have seemed like pure science fiction in 2011, becoming science fact in 2020. As flights are suspended, panic buying hits shops and schools face potential shut down. An eerily familiar reflection of our current situation. But for all its social discussion, death and drama. There is positivity and hope sitting at the heart of Contagion. Its core message remaining the importance of trust in both science and human ingenuity during crisis.
This is a message we all now need to hear as COVED-19 shuts down our daily lives. A message of optimism in the face of social crisis. One that centres on our ability to rise above panic, and listen to science and fact, over gossip, opinion and politically driven fear-mongering. While ensuring those who use society and science as playground for political and social disinformation, face quarantine. Equally there are clear lessons to be learnt in our relationship to our environment and animal kingdom. Our empty streets screaming the message that we are all part of one planet and one eco-system. One where no species is more dominant or special than the other. And in turn one that asks us all to reflect on a dangerous global obsession with industrial slaughter and live animal markets.
Director: Steven Soderbergh