These are the words that accompany the film’s title adorning the marque of Chabot Cinemas in Castro Valley, Ca, and they appropriately sum up the major theme of this year’s infectious disease awareness film, Contagion.
Contagion is a movie hard to place. It’s a science fiction film rooted in the terrifying realties of a global pandemic. It’s a horror movie that asks the question, “what if H1-N1 was as bad as everyone once feared it might be?” It’s a family drama about the hard times that bring people together and tear them apart. It’s a suspense thriller about the lengths to which people will go to protect their loved ones. It’s a disaster movie with only mild action and no cheesy dialogue. It carries the flavor of a post-apocalyptic world without leaving the viewer feeling bleak and somber. It’s a commentary on the way the government works with health organizations during a global crisis. It’s a major studio film with big names working both in front of and behind the camera, yet it does not glory in the light of any one star.
In short, Contagion does not take us into unfamiliar territory, but it leads us down a path that had previously gone unnoticed. And it does so very effectively.
While it’s classification may be a bit difficult to pin down, Contagion is any easy film to describe. It’s about an infectious disease that wreaks havoc on the world while scientists fight to find a way to stop it. The story follows the lives of several different individuals each working to make sense of this dire situation as best they know how. A man who loses wife and son to the disease, played by Matt Damon, tries to protect what’s left of his family. Several scientists and health officials, led by Laurence Fishburne, try to fight the spread of the disease. A blogger, Jude Law, uses the epidemic as a platform to expose government failings in times of crisis. A World Health Organization officer, played by Marion Cotillard, works to find the genesis of the disease and cut it off at the source. Several other stories, with some equally big names, are interwoven throughout the course of the film which packs more into 105 minutes than any movie I can remember.
So many elements work to the benefit of Contagion.
There is no wasted space here. at just about 105 minutes (including credits), Contagion is a lean, mean, fighting machine. It never drags, yet never feels too short. I am normally a fan of longer movies but this was a satisfying and balanced meal without all the fat. The movie starts with a bang and asks the viewer to watch closely, promising that everything will work out in the end.
With a principle cast of more than half a dozen Oscar nominees and winners, along with Academy Award winning director, Steven Soderberg, Contagion does not fail to deliver some serious start power. But, what is most impressive about the film is that none of the supporting players are washed out in the light of hollywood heavy hitters like Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow. Everyone stands toe to toe with equal presence. This is a testament to great writing, generous performance and skilled directing. The director was the draw for the stars, and the stars are obviously the draw at the box office, but the whole cast and crew seem to join together in saying, “forget who’s playing who, just watch the movie, you won’t be sorry you did.” Well played.
Along with the stellar cast come the interweaving story lines a la Crash and many other films. This obviously not a new development in story telling, but Contagion tells it well without over doing it. You would assume that a story like this, especially one on the shorter side, would make it difficult to care very much for any of the characters, but the opposite proves true. Contagion compels the viewer to care for every character with significant screen time, both big and small, and does it without leaving you emotionally spent.
I am officially more concerned about washing my hands today than I was yesterday. Contagion does a great job of causing the viewer to pay close attention to every cough and handshake in the film. In some ways, it’s like a classic whodunit. You just keep asking, “how did they get the disease?” “Where did it start?” “Will they ever stop it?” All these questions are answered by the films end, which is nice when most films like this want to leave you with more questions.
Contagion feels like a classic film: big stars, tight story, good acting, and a clear ending.
What Doesn’t Work?
Without giving too much away, there is an unnecessarily environmental message to the film. It’s in no way evident during the majority of the film, but as things wrap up, it’s obvious that the filmmakers are saying something about the way we take care of the planet. However, even in the moment, it’s subtle and if you miss it, you won’t lose anything from the movie. In fact, if you miss the “green initiative”, you’ll be better for. Let me be clear, the movie is far from ruined because of this. It’s just one of those unnecessary things that remind us of how much hollywood loves to preach their own religion. Oh well. It didn’t spoil anything for me.
While the barrage of big names was a bonus for the movie overall, the number of recognizable supporting players was a little distracting. Jess and I found ourselves pointing at the screen going, “hey that’s that guy from Dark Knight!” or “isn’t that the dad from Malcom in the Middle (Brian Cranston)?” There is barely as scene in the film with an unfamiliar face, especially early on, and it takes a bit of getting used to. About halfway through the film I got used to it, but at one point I did feel like I was just trying to remember where I had seen “that guy” before.
Jude Law’s false teeth.
Honestly, these are minor things, and if you can’t tell already, I’m going to recommend the movie.
What Can We Learn?
Wash your hands!
If anything, Contagion is a reminder of the fact that God gives the whole world life and breath and everything and in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:25-28). We are very fragile and in need of the constant sustaining grace of God. The slightest accidental bump or touch could mean an early exit from this world and it is only by the common grace of God, given to every human being, that we do not succumb to disease and die. Often times, the way that God sustains life is the furthest thing from our minds, but I am thankful that Contagion serves as a way to cause people to remember how easily things can change from day to day.
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
It is this word, this everlasting word that sustains the grass of our flesh from withering away this very hour. I pray that this truth, so evident in the film would penetrate many hearts so that they might not be among those about whom Paul speaks in Romans 1:18 and following:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
God is here and we are living only because of His grace toward us. Would that grace cause us to turn to Him and be saved by the power of the Gospel, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I give a hearty approval to Contagion. It’s a thinker and thriller and gives you plenty of time for a late dinner afterward. It’s pretty devoid of sexual content except a reference to an affair that has disastrous consequences for Chicago. It’s not for kids, but then again, that’s what the PG-13 is supposed to indicate.