Theatrical release poster
September 9, 2011
Contagion is a 2011 medical thriller disaster film. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film features an ensemble cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle. The plot of Contagion documents the spread of a virus transmitted by fomites, attempts by medical researchers and public health officials to identify and contain the disease, the loss of social order in a pandemic, and finally the introduction of a vaccine to halt its spread. Contagion makes use of a "hyperlink narrative" style popularized in several of Soderbergh's other films to follow several interacting plot lines.
After a business trip to Hong Kong, businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) stops in Chicago to have a sexual encounter with an old boyfriend before returning to her husband and family in suburban Minneapolis. At first she appears to have contracted a cold during her trip. Her son, Clark, also becomes symptomatic and is sent home from school. Beth's condition worsens and two days later she collapses with severe seizures in her home. Beth's husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), rushes her to the hospital, but she continues to have seizures and dies of an unknown cause. Because it affects the brain and central nervous system, pathologists attribute it to a meningoencephalitis virus. Mitch returns home and finds that Clark has also died from a similar infection. Mitch is put in isolation but turns out to be genetically immune to the disease. He and his daughter attempt to flee the city, but a military quarantine has been imposed, and they are forced to return to their home to face decaying social order and rampant looting of stores and homes. Not knowing whether his daughter inherited his immunity, Mitch struggles to balance his teenage daughter's frustration with quarantine with his desire to protect her, while trying to come to terms with his own loss.
In Atlanta, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security meet with Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and express fears that the disease is a bioweapon intended to cause terror over the Thanksgiving weekend. Cheever sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, to Minneapolis to begin the investigation. In addition to tracing the outbreak back to Beth, Dr. Mears has to negotiate with local bureaucrats reluctant to commit resources. She later becomes infected with the disease after being in contact with contaminated fomites, while staying at her hotel. The Minnesota National Guard arrives to quarantine the city, and a badly deteriorating Dr. Mears is moved to the field medical station she helped set up, where she later dies.
Investigations into cures via treatment protocols or vaccines initially prove fruitless as scientists cannot find a culture to grow the new virus, which has been named the Meningoencephalitis Virus One (MEV-1). Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) violates orders from a CDC scientist, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), to destroy his samples and identifies a line of bat cells that will support research of a vaccine. At the CDC, Dr. Hextall uses this breakthrough to begin to characterize the properties of the virus, which turns out to have a mix of genetic material from bat, pig and human viruses and appears to spread via fomites with a basic reproduction number of two. This later goes up to four after the virus mutates. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a conspiracy theorist, posts videos about the disease, and in one of them appears sick and later claims that he recovered using a homeopathic cure called forsythia. Panicked people attempting to obtain forsythia overwhelm pharmacies, accelerating the contagion as infected and healthy people congregate. Krumwiede leaps to national attention and, during a television interview, accuses Dr. Cheever of informing friends and family to leave Chicago before a quarantine is imposed. It is later revealed Krumwiede was never sick with the virus, but was attempting to boost demand on behalf of investors in the companies producing and distributing the homeopathic treatment. He is arrested for conspiracy and fraud, but is soon released after his 12 million blog readers collect and pay his bail.
Dr. Hextall identifies a potential vaccine, using an attenuated (live) virus. Because of the difficulties of human subjects testing, she follows the precedent of other vaccine researchers and inoculates herself first. Hextall visits her gravely ill father in the hospital to expose herself to the virus and test the vaccine. Production of the vaccine is rapidly ramped up and the CDC awards vaccinations via a random lottery based on birth dates for one full year until every survivor is vaccinated. Dr. Cheever, feeling guilty for his past actions to protect those who are close to him, gives his fast-tracked MEV-1 vaccination to the son of a janitor he works with at the disease center. Dr. Hextall places the surviving samples of the MEV-1 virus in cryogenic storage with H1N1 and SARS. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a World Health Organization epidemiologist, travels to Hong Kong to trace the origins of the infections. She collaborates with Sun Feng (Chin Han) and other local Chinese epidemiologists and public health officials and they identify Emhoff as patient zero. As the virus spreads, Feng kidnaps Orantes to use her as leverage to obtain the first MEV-1 vaccines for his village. Orantes spends months living in rural China with the villagers until the vaccine is announced. Feng exchanges Orantes for the vaccines, which turn out to be placebos. Orantes rushes away when she is informed of this, presumably to warn the village.
In the last moments of the film we are presented with an extended flashback that explains the outbreak of the virus. A man driving a bulldozer that works for Beth's company accidentally knocks down a palm tree where bats are nesting. The bats become disturbed and fly away. One of the bats is carrying a virus; it flies onto a banana plant and eats a chunk of the banana. The bat then flies away, and onto a pole, over a pig pen. The bat drops a chunk of the banana out of its mouth and into the pig pen, where a pig eats the banana, and becomes infected with the bat's disease, creating a Bat-Pig hybrid. The next day, a group of Chinese chefs collect the pigs and take them to a casino. One of the Chinese chefs butchers the diseased pig and smothers his hands in its blood. The chef casually wipes the blood on his apron and goes over to shake hands with Beth Emhoff, creating the Bat-Pig-Human hybrid that makes her patient zero as the origin of the MEV-1 Virus.
Cast and characterizations Edit
- Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes
- Orantes' main objective is to trace the origins and develop the pathogen for the virulent Meningoencephalitis Virus One. Cotillard, a fan of Soderbergh's work, first met up with the director in Los Angeles, California. The French actress was enthralled with the script because she was "very concerned about germs. I've always been ... scared, in a way, by all of those disease[s]. So ... it was really something I was really interested." Soderbergh said that Orantes "gets dropped into situations and has to deal with cultural as well as scientific issues that are sometimes at odds", and notes that she has a "professional" yet stubborn, "remote", and "dispassionate" demeanor, though "something happens to her in the course of the story that causes a significant emotional shift."
- Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff
- Damon viewed his character as the embodiment of the "everyman"—an individual that is seen as "one of the human faces of the supervirus" following the death of his wife and stepson. Soderbergh also noted Mitch's "common individual" lack of knowledge in medicine and science, though keeping the situation dynamic and compelling was a difficult challenge for the director, as he was concerned that Emhoff would be a one-dimensional character. Soderbergh felt that Damon understood the concept and addressed the concerns of the producers. "You never catch him acting", said Soderbergh. "There's no vanity, no self-consciousness in his performance; it's as if the cameras aren't there." Writer Scott Z. Burns sent him a copy of the script with a "read this and then go wash your hands" note attached to it. Damon recalled: "I just really want to be in this movie. It was a terrific, riveting, really fast read and really exciting and really horrifying, but managed to be really touching."
- Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever
- Soderbergh admired Fishburne's ability to portray an emphatic and assertive figure in previous films. To Fishburne, Cheever was a "smart", "competent" physician who often epitomized a "voice of reason". Once he conferred with W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist and professor at Columbia University, the character's complexities were nonexistent for the actor. Fishburne stated, "The personal stuff that I have as Ellis Cheever was telling my fiancée, soon-to-be wife, Sanaa Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk. That's really easy. Any human being in that situation is going to do that, I think."
- Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede
- Krumwiede is an ardent conspiracy theorist who, according to Law, is the so-called index patient for "what becomes a parallel epidemic of fear and panic". "We definitely wanted him to have a messianic streak", said Soderbergh, whom Law talked to during the creating process of the character. The two men discussed about the appearances and the behaviors of a typical anti-government conspiracy theorist. Producer Gregory Jacobs commented that "what's interesting is that you're not really sure about him. Is the government really hiding something and does the herbal remedy he's talking about really work? I think we all suspect at one time or another that we're not getting the whole truth, and in that sense Krumwiede represents the audience's point of view."
- Gwyneth Paltrow as Elizabeth "Beth" Emhoff
- A "working mom", as described by Paltrow, Elizabeth is the central figure in the detective process. Despite being among the first victims of the virus, Paltrow believed that Elizabeth was "lucky", as she thought the survivors of the disease were being left to deal with the newly difficult conditions of everyday life, such as finding food and potable water. When on location in Hong Kong, Paltrow was instructed by Soderbergh to take photographs to be used in the film, and admitted she was apprehensive about the assignment. "I was just another tourist taking pictures", she said, and added, "I did feel a little pressure. When Steven Soderbergh gives you a photo assignment, you had better come back with something decent."
- Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears
- In researching her character, Winslet traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, where she consulted with current and former officers of the Epidemic Intelligence Service to receive insight on not only the daily life, but on the type of person qualified for the occupation. "These are people who can be sent into war zones where there's been an outbreak of a new virus. Fear is not an option. If they feel it, they learn to push it aside." Winslet felt that Mears was able to bring the epidemic "down to the layman's level" so the viewer could comprehend the scope of it without the science dragging the story down.
- Soderbergh had seen Ehle's performance in Michael Clayton (2007), though it was ultimately cut prior to the film's release, and it prompted him to offer her a role in Contagion. He "had known who Jennifer was for a long time, and this didn't take a lot of thought, honestly".
- Han spoke of the development of Feng's character: "He starts off as a button-down, serious ... government official, and then as the movie progresses ... you find out a different side of him and his secret agenda."
- John Hawkes as Roger
- Anna Jacoby-Heron as Jory Emhoff
- Josephine Ho Chiu-Yi as Li Fai's sister
- Sanaa Lathan as Aubrey Cheever
- Demetri Martin as Dr. David Eisenberg
- Armin Rohde as Damian Leopold
- Enrico Colantoni as Dennis French
- Larry Clarke as Dave
- Monique Gabriela Curnen as Lorraine Vasquez
- Amr Waked as Rafik