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Review: 'Contagion' context. A new meaning in the age of COVID-19

Context was the theme of my doctoral dissertation.

It was about how context can change the meaning of something. The same thing can have different meanings in different contexts.

Case in point, Steven Soderbergh’s sci-fi thriller Contagion released in 2011 when COVID-19 or anything like it was just a terrifying, long shot possibility.

It was something that we could dismiss as science fiction and then shrug off. Which we did.

But this is the spring of 2020 and Contagion suddenly has a whole new meaning in the context of current events. As such, I decided to take a second look.

Much like Wolfgang Petersen’s movie Outbreak (1995), Contagion was a sci-fi biological doomsday movie, alerting us of the very real possibility (some might argue inevitability) of a global pandemic.

Both movies were pretty frightening when they were released. They are even more frightening today, at a moment when movie fantasy has crossed over into grim, objective reality.

Comparing the two films, Contagion is darker and grittier.

The visual style packs a sense of unfiltered immediacy and hard reality with Soderbergh’s camerawork, lighting and color.

The style borders on documentary filmmaking. Factual and straightforward.

Interesting, it begins to chronicle the story starting on Day 2. Initially, you think you’ve mistakenly skipped something until you later realize that it is all a clever narrative device.

Contagion holds back the beginning of the story until the very end when it reveals the fateful, illuminating events of Day 1.

I’m going to avoid a synopsis of the film found in so many movie reviews.

Instead, I want to focus on the parts of the movie’s content that directly links to what we are experiencing with the Coronavirus. As it turns out, some of it accurately foresaw what all of this would be like.

I know that many people would say that this is the last movie they’d want to watch right now, but I would argue that you should give it some serious consideration. Beyond the cinematic drama and suspense, there is some real take-away here.

For starters, it’s a no-holds-barred look at the horrific effects of a worst-case viral epidemic.

The suffering and death are graphic and shocking. And you’re never sure who is going to die. Every character in the movie is a potential victim.

It’ a serious subject handled very seriously. It makes the point that the outbreak is lethal and ugly and that it spares no one.

Contagion also does a respectable job illustrating the rapid transmission and resulting mass infection of the disease. It shows how everyday physical activities can have menacing, lethal results.

The movie does a masterful job noticing the little details that most of us wouldn’t normally think twice about-- touching a glass in a restaurant, a pole on mass-transit vehicle, the door handle of a public building—that spreads the virus everywhere.

It underscores the frightening danger of physical contact with other people. And it shows us how we unknowingly carry out the work of this virus in a thousand ways, unconsciously and unintentionally.

More than the horror movie shock value of the ghastly victims, it’s the realization that we are all unknowing participants in our own catastrophic demise that becomes the most terrifying aspect of Contagion.

It makes the point that we can be our own worst enemies.

It’s this aspect of the movie that makes me suggest that it should be required viewing even in the midst of what we are experiencing. Especially now.

I know that many of us are currently heeding the advice about maintaining a safe distance from others, properly washing our hands and staying inside.

Unfortunately, there are those among us who aren’t getting aboard.

I heard on the news there were people who became infected after attending a Coronavirus party, that was held to express their defiance of COVID-19.

If there was ever any confusion about how serious this threat could potentially be-- in part because of our unwitting participation in its devastating spread—Contagion should put that confusion to rest.

The movie grabs you by the collar and makes you think. Much of it looks all too familiar at this point in time.

The empty schools and places of business, the press conferences (held, in the movie, not by government officials, but by experts at the CDC) -- scenes that have become sadly routine in the span of a week.

Remarkably, Contagion even has a scene in which Dr. Sanjay Gupta pops up as himself in a mock television interview. It was uncanny.

I mentioned earlier that the movie opens on Day 2 and ends with a flashback to the fateful events of Day 1 when the epidemic and the story both begin.

In another strange parallel to current events, we are shown infected bats, halfway around the world, being dislodged from trees by bulldozers and the encroachment of civilization.

What follows is a short montage that shows a quick but plausible chain of events that traces the jump of the deadly virus from bats to humans.

Without spelling it out, let’s just say that the sequence is one of those “Oh, my God!” cinematic revelations that really sinks in.

It may not be that epic moment at the end of Planet of the Apes (1968) when Charlton Heston’s astronaut character stares up at the decaying, half-buried Statue of Liberty on a deserted beach, but it is a moment of shocking revelation that you are likely to never forget.

It is disturbing and unsettling.

And it’s despite that, or maybe because of that, that I’d recommend Contagion, whether you’re seeing it for the first time or taking a second look.

You can find it on Amazon Prime.

For those still questioning the seriousness of the Coronavirus pandemic and the necessity for all of us to do everything we possibly can to slow it down and stop it, this might be all anyone needs to see.

If you’re afraid of becoming too depressed, let me say that Outbreak and Contagion have relatively happy outcomes from an overall perspective, considering the dire, ominous subject matter.

In the end, both offer a message of hope-- that diseases, even the most terrifying ones, can be conquered when everyone pulls together. And that things can somehow, someday return to normal.

Life isn’t a movie. But here’s a case where you pray that life will ultimately imitate art.

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