Visual storytelling a key strength in ‘Contagion’
It all starts with a cough. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and chatting on the phone at an airport bar. She seems to have a little cold, but she keeps on snacking on the tray of peanuts in front of her and preparing to return home to her family. Little does she know that her little cough is about to affect the entire world.
Soon, we see the epidemic start to claim lives around the globe. The waiter who served Beth a drink dies of a mysterious illness as does a business man who sat next to her at a casino. Even Beth’s young son becomes a victim. The illness kills quickly and is extremely contagious, so it’s clear this isn’t your ordinary flu.
The CDC and World Health Organization become involved, trying to find the “index patient”, the first one to show signs of the illness, and develop a cure.
Laurence Fishburne is Dr. Ellis Cheever, head of the CDC. He sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to meet with Beth’s husband, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), who doesn’t show signs of infection, despite his close contact with his now-deceased wife. Mitch and his daughter are miraculously immune, though they are doomed to try to survive in a world where the virus completely disrupts society. Damon plays Mitch with very real emotion. His confusion turns to fear, though he tries to put up a strong front for his daughter, which seems exactly like what a real dad would do when faced with this anarchy.
On the other side of the world, Dr. Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a representative from the World Health Organization is on her way to Asia to investigate the origins of the disease. She is faced with devastation and desperation when she is kidnapped and used as a bargaining chip to get vaccines to a small village. She starts to get emotionally invested in the villagers and her perspective begins to change.
As the disease continues to wipe out millions of people, conspiracy blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) feeds the public panic by preaching that the government has full power to end the disease, yet betrays the masses by withholding the cure. Is he right or is his homeopathic “cure” just a sham?
Meanwhile, two scientists (Jennifer Ehle and Demitri Martin) are tirelessly working to develop a vaccine and stop the spread of the rapidly-mutating virus. They are seemingly the only impartial people in this struggle, having no personal motivations other than helping the world, but even they are not immune to emotions. Dr. Hextall’s (Ehle) father has been infected and is dying in a hospital, so she wants to use the vaccine to be able to see him again.
One of the most heartbreaking parts of the film is that, with a slew of characters from all different backgrounds, there is no one who is emotionally disconnected from the devastation happening around them. Everyone has a dog in this fight, from trying to save a family member to trying to comfort another victim of the virus. They are all invested by motivations beyond just stopping the disease.
Hollywood typically handles any disaster film with grandeur. There’s always a scene where a scientist tries to explain something to a stubborn government official using a ridiculous analogy to try to put it in layman’s terms. There are people violently fighting the infected like they’re zombies, there are even a few explosions. The best part of Contagion is that it doesn’t involve all those cliches. Instead, it gives us a very believable story about what would happen to our world if a virus of this magnitude started to spread. Instead of terrifying us with over-the-top action, the film uses realistic situations. One sick person at an airport gives the virus access to the entire world and doing something as simple as touching your face could be a death sentence.
Another break from tradition is showing things from the perspective of those infected. We always see someone who isn’t sick running from the virus and trying to protect themselves, but what if you already have it? When a key character realizes she’s ill, she feels enormous guilt knowing that she must have infected others. What if you were killing everyone around you and you didn’t even know it? That side of the story is rarely seen.
The film is disturbing because of the realism. We all know to wash our hands when using the restroom, but the virus in Contagion is so powerful that even being cautious isn’t enough. Much of the realistic nature of the film is due to visual storytelling on director Steven Soderbergh’s part. The last scene, which finally reveals the origin of the virus, is told entirely though imagery and contains no dialogue or titles. Audiences have to be smart enough to see what’s happening instead of being told what’s happening.
The mystery of the virus is one of the most gripping aspects. The film begins on day two, only showing us the true origin of the disease at the very end, when it’s most meaningful. We see the infected and all the objects and people they come in contact with. We see the places they travel and the populations of each city, starting with cities that contain a few million residents to those housing more than 30 million. At one point, the virus arrives in a Chinese province that is home to almost 100 million people. We literally witness the spread of the deadly illness without need for the characters to spell it out for us.
This same subtle method of showing us rather than telling us is used throughout the film. We hear a doctor say that this is the fourth case reported, then a CDC board meeting reveals that number has skyrocketed. Things grow exponentially and we eventually hear a newscast declaring that more than 20 million people have died. Yet none of this is told in a giant, dramatic way. These are merely facts, just the reality of the world, not lines that require a swell of ominous music or anyone breaking down in utter panic.
There isn’t a moment where the audience is hit over the head with the impact or the science of the virus. Instead, we see scientists talking to each other, using terms that would go over your average moviegoer’s head, but the words they use aren’t important. It’s not crucial for someone who isn’t a doctor to panic at these facts, it’s only important to see the worry on the face of someone who fully understands the science of the virus. If the experts are scared, it’s easy for us to understand the scope of this epidemic without being explicitly told how bad things are.
Contagion assumes that it’s audience is smart enough to follow the complex story and receive key plot points through subtlety. That kind of respect for viewers is rare in most big Hollywood films.