Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion: Portrait of the Apocalypse

If you find speculation about post-apocalyptic situations interesting, then you should find speculation about the progression of an apocalypse interesting too. Steve Soderbergh‘s Contagion is a fine cinematic take on this eventuality.

The movie’s plot is simple: a deadly new virus jumps the animal-human barrier, and is transmitted quickly by contact. The virus’ first appearance occurs in the Far East, and then, thanks to its method of transmission and modern international travel, it quickly acquires a global presence. Its rate of progression is geometric, and as disease control centers struggle to study its molecular biology–“a mix of genetic material from pig and bat viruses”–and devise a vaccine, the virus spreads, killing dozens, then hundreds, thousands and millions. This is a global pandemic, one that could terminate civilization as we know it. 

As the pandemic progresses, successive scenes in the movie–often sustained by Cliff Martinez’ excellent soundtrack– ratchet up the tension, leading finally, to the dreaded scenes of a possibly irreversible breakdown in social order.  It is all here: the run for food at supermarkets; the hoarding; the looting; the spreading panic; the evacuations and the exodus. Conspiracy theories make the rounds; the unscrupulous find ways to profit; the principled find new occasions for bravery; the diligent die; there is space aplenty for displays of love, cowardice, fear, and bravery.

Many entries in the post-apocalyptic genre leave the apocalypse unspecified; Contagion details it quite carefully.

It is be too simplistic to suggest, as many are often tempted to when confronted with such portrayals of social degeneration in response to catastrophe, that these are occasions when “true human nature”, inevitably described as “selfish” and “cruel”, is on display. Instead, as I have argued before,

There is an alternative moral to be drawn…the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

What makes Contagion as compelling as it manages to be is ultimately its commitment to scientific and political fidelity: the genetics, the virology, the epidemiology, the development of a vaccine, are all carefully and knowledgeably described and deployed in storytelling, as are the machinations of interactions between state and federal officials, and national and international public health authorities. This is a cerebral thriller, whose slickness of production artfully complements its keen eye for detail.

Mankind makes it back from the brink, but it has been a narrow escape, and it will not bring back to life the twenty-six million that do lose their lives. This is fiction, but the perils it depicts are not too far from actuality.

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