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Spoiler Talk: Contagion
Noel Penaflor   |  


After quietly filing out of the theater after screening Contagion, one question popped into my head: What marketing genius over at Warner Bros. decided to open a movie in which millions of [fictional] people die on THIS weekend of all the other weekends one could have picked? Though one may never get an answer, if you do choose to see Contagion, it’s the scariest non-horror movie you’ll see all year, and is worth the price of admission just to see so many recognizable actors bite it.

Not even having an Academy Award can prevent you from a gruesome death as the cast boasts four Oscar Winners (Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow), not including Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Informant), along with 3 other nominees (Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes) all serving the ensemble but never overshadowing the main story. If it weren’t for the mega-wattage stars highlighting which characters you should be paying attention to, the movie almost has a documentary feel, with other than the most obvious concessions that yes, you really are just watching a movie.

And during some of the more harrowing parts of Contagion, you’re grateful for that because there are times when it feels like it could be happening right outside your window.

If you’ve seen the trailer, the “plot” itself is relatively straightforward.

There’s a virus. People die. Not-dead people try to find a cure. More people die. People look into microscopes because that’s about the only science-y thing you can do onscreen that looks remotely interesting unless you really like watching people type. People talk on the phone. Fake Press Conferences are held by suits with grave faces. More people die.

Director Soderbergh, working in the same relative style that he did in 2000’s excellent Traffic, along with minimal score so as not to elicit false emotion, makes everything in Contagion feel immediate, almost as if you’re watching a viral video that could have occurred 6 months ago with people that just look like Matt Damon and Jude Law.

Contagion movie stillWarning: SPOILERS

Contagion opens in Hong Kong during the Thanksgiving season. There’s a young woman named Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) on the phone. She seems to be having an intimate conversation with a man and it looks like they’re setting up a time to rendezvous in the States, maybe Chicago.

It looks like Beth is suffering from a mild Cold(play).

A bunch of quick cuts show other people who seem to be displaying the same symptoms as Beth. They will be dead soon.

So is Beth, but first she goes home to her family in Minneapolis as the audience realizes that the man Beth was speaking to is not her husband Mitch (Matt Damon, in ordinary guy mode).

Beth is looking more pallid than before, but she’s well enough to hug her son, thus ensuring the kid will die too.

While they’re having some welcome-home Pizza, Beth has a seizure and flip-flops on the linoleum. Mitch takes her to the hospital. Maybe the pizza should have been cooked just a little bit more.

Soon after Beth is admitted, she dies. The doctor has no idea what happened.

Mitch is understandably shocked, and now he’s not sure if he’s left the oven on. That’s going to be the least of his worries because when he gets home he finds out from the baby-sitter that his stepson has died as well. Bad News.

Contagion movie stillThat sucks, because how’s that going to look on the baby-sitter’s resume?

Good news #1: Mitch no longer has to tell his stepson that his mother is dead.

Good news #2: He did not leave the oven on.

Good news #3: The pizza is still warm and soft.

While Mitch is enjoying his pizza and some quiet in the house for once, we see that all over the world people are dying just like Beth, and that Hong Kong may be Ground Zero.

Doctors performing the autopsy on Beth’s body see something out of the ordinary. Whatever the contagion was, it decimated most of Beth’s cells…and continues to mutate. Gooey.

Another tech mistakes the contagion for salsa, takes a sample from Beth’s skull, and puts it out for the lunchroom spread por una fiesta. It’s a huge hit until about 5 minutes later until the anal leakage and the inability to control it sets in. 5 minutes after that, death sets in.

In San Francisco, a viral video of a man dying is caught and shown by a blogger named Alan (Jude Law) who suspects that something even more sinister is afoot. Even if there’s nothing going on, Alan may be able to parlay this paranoia and fear into a quick buck. Maybe even a lot of quick bucks.

Because of the rate and efficacy at which the contagion is spreading, the CDC must now get involved because this looks to be an epidemic of epidemic proportions.
Heading the CDC is Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne).

Bad News: Dr. Cheever is black. In movies like this it’s usually the minority that dies first, much like in the newly-released to DVD X-Men: First Class.

Good News: Beth already ate it, and you can’t get much whiter than Gwyneth Paltrow, so no matter what happens from here, the black guy will NOT die first. Progress!

Dr. Cheever sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to get a CDC foothold in Minnesota to figure out what’s going on, possibly get some samples from Beth’s corpse.

Contagion movie stillCheever supervises while Dr. Hextall (Meryl Streep lookalike Jennifer Ehle) and Dr. Eisenberg (comedian Demetri Martin, oddly enough given no funny lines) try to create a vaccine.

The World Health Organization sends Dr. Oriantes (Marion Cotillard), an epistemologist (yes, you can look it up) to Hong Kong, hoping to find the exact location of Ground Zero, which gives everyone a better chance of discerning the exact nature of the disease.

Meanwhile, Mitch and his not-dead stepdaughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) are trying to survive as the days pass without a cure or even the hope of a vaccine. Mitch seems to be immune to the contagion, and is quarantined for further study. Dr. Mears tells him that Beth may have been the one that initially brought the disease over from Hong Kong but first had a layover in Chicago.

Mitch reveals that Beth had a relationship with a man from Chicago years before.
Dr. Mears stares at the ceiling hoping that while Mitch hasn’t caught the disease, he may be able to catch a fucking clue. She hopes she doesn’t have to use the white index card that states in bold letters “BETH WAS GETTING CORNHOLED BY ANOTHER GUY BEHIND YOUR BACK AND MAY BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATHS OF THOUSANDS OF UNITED STATES CITIZENS AS WELL AS MILLIONS AROUND THE WORLD”

Fortunately, Mitch is able to put 2 and 2 together. Mitch has had better weeks.

The contagion is still a’ragin’ as the doctors struggle to find a vaccine. One can only imagine how many more will die before things will get better because the body count is rising and the body bag count is dwindling.

And it’s only a matter of time before the bodies start coming back to life, looking for food.

Kidding about that last part because this isn’t a zombie movie, but what is serious is that it’s all Beth’s fault and she deserved her agonizing death.

Thanks Beth.

Contagion movie stillWhat works with Contagion

1) Of the high profile cast, Kate Winslet give the best performance, easing into a perfect American accent and making even the most technical jargon feel digestible. We may not know what the hell Dr. Mears is saying, but she’s saying it with conviction. It’s good to see Winslet back on the big screen and reminding me why she’s one of my favorite actresses, despite The Reader.

2) The scenes of civil unrest and social discord are genuinely disquieting as they show how the thin line between civility and anarchy. This is when you’re glad you’re watching a movie, as those sequences are more uncomfortably realistic (the assault on a drugstore is particularly wince-worthy) than you may have bargained for when you paid for your ticket.

3) You might think that having such an A-list cast might be a distraction, but thanks to Scott Z. Burns’ smart pared-down script, none of the actors are given false “movie” moments and every actor plays his\her part as written with no obvious scene-chewing. The only character who feels like a typical movie “character” is Jude Law’s blogger, but that may be because I don’t want to imagine there really would be someone like that around if the events of Contagion were to occur.

What doesn’t work-

1) One or two minor Horror-movie moments when a character does something no real person would do in order to get the story moving. Those moments are few and far between and only show how well-done the other 98% of the movie is.

Overall. Though not a movie made for awards despite the cachet of its actors, Contagion is one of the better movies of the year, tense, thrilling, and may hit too close to home to…

…sorry, I may have to stop right here because I’m feeling a little under the weather. My stomach feels upset and it feels like I’m starting to get a fever. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that salsa. Or had sex with that giraffe again.


  1. Ehle made the film for me.

    Comment by tab — September 12, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  2. Hey,
    While I loved your take and don’t want to come off as that kid…. I think that you meant to put ‘epidemiologist’ versus ‘epistemologist.’ 

    Comment by A BioNerd — September 12, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

  3. If Fishbourne didn’t have the shot… does that mean he had had one before or he was immune.. or what?

    Comment by Josh — June 16, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

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