Some of the scariest material that Stephen King has ever written — scarier, in its way, than anything in The Shining or ’Salem’s Lot or Pet Sematary — is contained in the first hundred-odd pages of his apocalyptic magnum opus, The Stand. There are no ghouls or vampires in those pages: Just the vivid and remorseless account of how a deadly supervirus, once freed from its home in a military laboratory, swiftly joyrides its way across the continental United States, passing from cop to waitress, patient to doctor, parent to child, as the Centers for Disease Control and the military frantically struggle to catch up.
I first read The Stand on a crowded summertime beach many years ago, and I remember looking up from the novel to stare with mounting paranoia at the bathers around me, suddenly seeing them only as 500 disease vectors baking in the sun.
In its most effective moments, Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded thriller Contagion captures exactly this kind of non-supernatural horror. The movie has the structure of a globalization message movie like Babel or Syriana or Soderbergh’s own Traffic, with various big-name actors headlining intersecting stories that link bats in Hong Kong to blogs in San Francisco to public buses in Chicago. But Contagion is less sentimentalized and more ruthlessly efficient than its predecessors in the genre, and for most of its running time its only real message is this: Be Very Afraid, and stock up on Purell.
The movie opens with a coughing Gwyneth Paltrow, playing an American executive en route home from a casino opening in Hong Kong, and taking a layover in Chicago to reconnect with an old flame. Her cuckolded husband, embodied by Matt Damon, welcomes her back to suburban Minneapolis soon afterward, and a few short scenes later she’s dead: Patient Zero in a pandemic that evokes SARS and H1N1, but proves far deadlier than both.
From Hong Kong, Minneapolis, and Chicago, the infection ripples outward across Asia and North America, killing millions within weeks. Borders are sealed, riots erupt, and the Internet goes wild with conspiracy theories. In Minneapolis, a CDC field operative (Kate Winslet) tries to manage the mounting chaos, throwing up makeshift hospitals in armories and schools. In Hong Kong, a World Health Organization official (Marion Cotillard) tries to trace the infection to its source. In Atlanta, the head of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne) tries to coordinate a national response, while one of his scientists (Jennifer Ehle) races to develop a vaccine. And from his well-trafficked Bay Area website, a sinister blogger (Jude Law) spreads claims of Big Pharma cover-ups and persuades the suffering to dose themselves with forsythia instead.
Back in Minnesota, Damon’s character, now a widowed father, supplies the human center around which all of this action revolves. He’s apparently immune to the superflu, but his teenage daughter may not be, and in his efforts to quarantine her in the heart of a crowded, increasingly lawless suburb, we see what a pandemic looks like on the ground level — from the ransacked supermarkets and the emptied ATMs to the rank fear that attaches to even a casual encounter with another human being.
Contagion is more like a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller than a Stephen King novel, so the audience senses that civilization probably isn’t going to collapse completely. (The disease’s infection rate, established early on, clearly isn’t dire enough for that.) What becomes apparent as the story moves along, though, is that this movie is something more unusual as well: It’s a pro-establishment thriller, in which not only scientists but also bureaucrats and federal agents and even the U.S. military (embodied by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, as the rear admiral working with the CDC) are the good guys, and instead of the usual run of sinister military-industrial-complex types the only villain is Law’s rogue blogger, ranting about a corporate-government cover-up while he profits from his own misinformation.
I’m of two minds about this theme. It’s always nice to see Hollywood debunk conspiracy theories rather than going all-in for the paranoid style, and there’s something refreshing about a disaster movie in which human institutions and their leaders turn out to be up to the task at hand, and the fate of the world doesn’t end up in the hands of a teenager or a crank scientist or a superhero (or some combination thereof).
On the other hand, the cartoonish contrast between Contagion’s blogger villain — the handsome Law is equipped with a snaggled front tooth and the last name Krumwiede, in case we didn’t get the point — and the heroic bureaucrats of the CDC and the World Health Organization eventually feels absurd in its own right. By the time a Homeland Security agent is telling him, “If I could throw your computer in jail, I would” — a line that’s clearly supposed to inspire cheers from the audience — Contagion’s pro-establishment bias has stopped seeming novel, and started seeming a little creepy instead.
“Nothing spreads like fear,” runs the movie’s tag line, but anyone who thinks that bloggers spread fear more effectively than the mainstream media has clearly never turned on cable television. I can believe that global civilization might be imperiled by the cross-breeding of a pig virus and a bat virus deep in the forests of East Asia. I’m less persuaded that it’s imperiled by the blogosphere.