“It’s an Irwin Allen movie,” director Steven Soderbergh recently told the New York Times in a story about his horrifying new thriller, Contagion. “We’re doing exactly what he did, using a lot of movie stars and trying to scare a lot of people.” Soderbergh was referring to the Hollywood producer who gave us the monster hits The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Allen didn’t really invent the disaster movie; that honor probably goes to Airport (1970), with Dean Martin trying to land a Boeing 707 that’s been crippled by a terrorist bombing. But Allen did perfect the survivalist formula that propelled many disaster movies (and countless horror movies since), in which an assortment of characters band together under the leadership of one shrewd and decisive individual to escape from an enclosed space before time runs out. Like murder victims in an Agatha Christie play, they’re picked off one by one, and part of the fun is predicting who will make it out alive and who won’t.
The disaster movie has never really gone away, but certainly its heyday was the 1970s, an era so fraught with social and political chaos that the country often felt like a sinking ship or a burning skyscraper. Through the end of the decade, Hollywood cranked out one spectacular crisis after another: along with three Airport sequels there were Earthquake (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Rollercoaster (1977), Avalanche (1978), Gray Lady Down (1978), Meteor (1979), and The China Syndrome (1979). Soderbergh’s movie arrives in a comparably bleak social climate, yet in some respects Contagion—about a worldwide pandemic that ultimately kills 26 million people—differs dramatically from the Irwin Allen formula. Instead of banding together to reach the outside world, Soderbergh’s characters pull away from each other in terror, sealing themselves up in their homes in a spooky mirror image of our atomized online society.
True to Soderbergh’s promise, Contagion features plenty of stars: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes—even comedian Demetri Martin turns up in a straight role as a medical researcher. Because the story deals with a pandemic, you’re never sure when one of these attractive people will start foaming at the mouth and flapping around like a fish out of water. Just as Alfred Hitchcock shocked viewers by killing off Janet Leigh in Psycho, the first person to kick the bucket in Contagion is the glamorous Paltrow. There’s even a close-up of her blueish, dead-eyed face as two autopsy surgeons saw off the top of her skull and fold the bloody flap of her scalp down over her forehead. “Oh my God!” exclaims one of them, inspecting her brain. (If I could look inside Gwyneth Paltrow’s head, I’d probably have the same reaction.)
Along with the stars, Contagion has plenty of scares, though in contrast to Matt Damon and Kate Winslet, they’re things you encounter every day. The movie opens with a black screen and, on the sound track, someone coughing. Again and again Soderbergh stresses the little things that communicate disease; after Paltrow leaves her seat at a bar, the camera pans down to the glass dish of cocktail peanuts she’s been sampling. When Dr. Sussman (Gould), a scientist who’s studying the virus, tries to relax by dining at a restaurant, the sight of people congregating horrifies him: every kiss, every handshake, every exchanged glass could mean death. A tight close-up of a finger pressing an elevator button registers with the same force as Leatherface swinging a chainsaw. Like most big-studio movies, Contagion screened for the Chicago press only once, and I knew that, despite a vicious head cold, I’d have to show up if I wanted to write this review. I didn’t feel guilty before the movie started, but I sure as hell did afterward.
The everyman hero of the movie is Mitch Emhoff (Damon), who’s lucky enough to be naturally immune to the disease even though his wife (Paltrow) and little stepson die within hours of exposure. Mitch is a decent man, but he doesn’t have the chance to be Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure or Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno; once he’s released from quarantine, he retreats with his teenage daughter to the safety of their home, like almost everyone else in the world, and waits it out. Many of the doctors at the Centers for Disease Control fall prey to selfishness or bureaucratic bickering. The only one who comes off particularly well is the selfless Dr. Mears (Winslet), who’s sent into the field to investigate and, perhaps inevitably, contracts the disease (she dies on a cot in a triage ward, characteristically trying to offer her jacket to the trembling man next to her). Meanwhile, the president of the United States has been moved safely underground, and members of Congress are staying at home and working online.
Soderbergh’s treatment of the Internet turns out to be the most provocative aspect of Contagion. Like the virus, which destroys any cell it encounters, misinformation spreads rapidly online and tends to cancel out information that might save people. The movie’s only clear villain is Alan Krumwiede (Law), a cynical and opportunistic muckraking blogger. The more responsible characters treat him like a roach: when he pitches a story about the burgeoning crisis to an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, she brushes him off, and when he sticks a digital recorder in Dr. Sussman’s face, the scientist scurries away. (“Blogging is not writing,” Sussman tells him over his shoulder, “It’s graffiti with punctuation.”) After Krumwiede begins trumpeting the curative power of the herb forsythia his website takes off, and before long he has 12 million unique visitors. But the herb’s limited availability spurs rioting at overwhelmed pharmacies, and Krumwiede’s conspiracy theories about the government and Big Pharma dissuade some people from taking advantage of the official vaccine.
Disaster movies have run the gamut of natural calamity: fires, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, asteroids hitting the planet, you name it. But ultimately they all come down to issues of leadership and trust: in The Poseidon Adventure, Hackman manages to persuade a small group of people on an overturned ocean liner to follow him toward the engine room, where they have a small chance of cutting through the ship’s hull, rather than waiting in the upside-down ballroom to be rescued. Contagion is more alarming than anything Irwin Allen conjured up, but that may have less to do with the movie itself than with the fact that in this era of mounting crisis, both natural and man-made, our leaders are too feckless to lead and the rest of us too cloistered to follow. Trust may be communicable, but it’s not exactly contagious.