Saturday, 4 February 2012

Contagion (2011)

Contagion is a 2011 medical thriller disaster film directed by Steven Soderbergh. The film has an ensemble cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet. The film 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.

The film had a production budget of $60 million, and filming took place in countries around the world. It premiered on September 3, 2011, at the 68th Venice Film Festival and was publicly released to critical acclaim on September 9, 2011, in the United States, Canada, Italy, Hong Kong, and four other territories. Contagion grossed an estimated $135 million worldwide. A number of scientists and science writers have praised the accuracy of the science in the film which received cooperation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Plot

The film follows several interacting plotlines, with no single protagonist, over the course of several weeks from the initial outbreak and attempts to contain it, to panic and decay of social order, and, finally, to the introduction of a vaccine.

After a business trip to Hong Kong, businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) stops in Chicago for a dalliance with a previous boyfriend before returning to her husband and family in suburban Minneapolis. At first she appears to have contracted a common 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 (Damon), rushes her to the hospital, but she continues to seize and dies of an unknown virus. 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 (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 (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.

A conspiratorially minded freelance internet journalist, Alan Krumwiede (Law), posts video blogs 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 and also accelerate 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 guilt over 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 (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.

The film concludes by tracing the origin of the virus from a bat nesting in a tree being cleared by Emhoff's mining corporation. The bat flies to a nearby pig sty and drops a banana where it is eaten by the pig, presumably transferring the bat virus into the pig. The pig is sold to and butchered by a chef in a Macau casino who greets Beth Emhoff without washing his hands of the pig's blood, transferring the bat-pig hybrid to her and creating the MEV-1 human strain.


Contagion has received positive reviews from critics who saw the film at its world première at the Venice Film Festival. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 84% of critics gave the film a positive review, with an average critical score of 7.1/10, based on 214 professional reviews. The site's consensus stated, "Tense, tightly plotted, and bolstered by a stellar cast, Contagion is an exceptionally smart—and scary—disaster movie." Parmita Borah in her review wrote, "All of the characters have been treated with balanced empathy and make for the drama that a story like this requires to make it human." At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 based on mainstream critical reviews, the film received an average score of 70 based on 38 reviews.

The Cast

Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes
Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff
Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever
Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede
Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff
Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears
Chin Han as Sun Feng
John Hawkes as Roger
Anna Jacoby-Heron as Jory Emhoff
Josephine Ho Chiu-Yi as Li Fai's sister
Amr Waked as Rafik
Demetri Martin as Dr. David Eisenberg
Bryan Cranston as RADM Lyle Haggerty, PHSCC
Jennifer Ehle as Dr. Ally Hextall
Sanaa Lathan as Aubrey Cheever
Elliott Gould as Dr. Ian Sussman
Armin Rohde as Damian Leopold
Enrico Colantoni as Dennis French
Larry Clarke as Dave
Monique Gabriela Curnen as Lorraine Vasquez

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