contagionI found this the other day, from a blog I started and abandoned back in 2011 and I figured, why not post it here?

Disclaimer: This piece is written for those who have already seen the film Contagion. If you haven’t and don’t want to know what happens, then don’t read the essay.  

On the surface, Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagion is about a lethal virus tearing a path across the planet. We are along for the ride, from what may or may not be Patient Zero, until such time as a vaccine has been developed and the virus locked away in cryo-storage, ostensibly for research purposes.

Beneath the surface, however, there is much more at hand than a simple ‘killer plague’ movie. Released just two days prior to the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Contagion is an allegorical, haunting, and often painful look at our species and the way that we buckle under the slightest of pressures. Most tellingly, of all the cities represented as the story unfolds and the virus rages, New York is nowhere to be seen and, unless I’m mistaken, is not even mentioned. Even more telling is the conspicuous absence of police and firefighters, the very people we look to in times of trouble, and who played significant parts in the days and weeks that followed the September 11 attacks. The reason, as I see it, is an overt attempt to make us think of that cruel and stupid day ten years ago and the quixotic ‘War on Terror’ which ensued. By deliberately removing such iconic subjects, we are forced all the more to think of them, because they have become synonymous with disaster. The only real authority we see are military personnel in gas masks, whose presence reinforces the sense of absolute chaos our world has fallen into. The politicians, true to form, have vanished into their underground bunkers, where they will comfortably ride the storm out while the people they claim to serve are dying in the streets.

The story begins on Day 2, with an infected woman who has been traveling abroad. She may or may not have had an affair, and many of us assume that her acquiring the disease is a result of, and punishment for, her infidelity, thus beginning the central theme of the film, moralizing on things about which we have no knowledge. We learn early on (and are shown numerous examples) that the virus is spread through fomite transmission, which reflects the hand-washing and -sanitizing mania of several years ago, not to mention the cultural xenophobia so prevalent in the last decade. The question of the virus’ (eventually named MEV-1) origin persists throughout the film: is it a case of outright bioterrorism, a conspiracy launched by the pharmaceutical industry to generate profits, or a government experiment gone awry and if so, which government unleashed it? In the desperate chase to maintain a live specimen and develop a vaccine, we are subjected to political grandstanding, special interest obfuscation, self-serving medicos and bureaucrats, and a muckraking Australian blogger (shades of Rupert Murdoch) whose miraculous cure by homeopathy is ultimately shown to be nothing more than medicine-show profiteering off of the fears of a populace desperate for protection.

Although the pandemic is a global disaster, Contagion is an intensely personal film. Unlike the disaster films of the 1970s, there are very few special effects set pieces, no soap-opera cheesiness, and no emotional swells of orchestral music to accompany the drama. The music is sparse and simple, and we get only small glimpses into the character’s lives, which echo the disaster coverage to which we have become all too accustomed. What the people are doing right now is what matters, good, bad, or otherwise. This minimalist approach to character development actually makes the characters more accessible than if we knew their entire life stories, because any of them could be any of us, particularly because moral baggage usually just serves to allow us to place ourselves above the characters and therefore renders them unrelatable.

As I write this, there is an endless barrage of imagery on the television from ten years ago, the majority of which shows how we, as a nation, came together in the face of national tragedy and how so many worked tirelessly, side by side, to pull victims from the rubble of the Towers. This ‘strength of the human spirit’ theme is pervasive in TV disaster coverage, whether it’s 9/11, the ’89 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Northridge earthquake, and countless others. I agree that in those times of crisis, many people came together and it was an amazing thing to experience. These disasters, however, were severely localized, which allowed most people to experience them from a safe distance. With a global pandemic, things quickly degenerate to the level of depravity witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. Lacking the relative comfort of safety, authority, and separation, the human race largely goes feral. Unfortunately, I believe this to be a fairly accurate forecast of how things will be if a global catastrophe were to occur.

When a vaccine is developed, predictably, those in positions of power and influence are the first to receive a life-saving dose while the rest of humanity must wait until their birthday-based lottery number is called, a process that will take years to complete. In a final, savage stroke of irony, we finally learn that the global pandemic was the result of an infected bat dropping a banana it was eating, which was then eaten by a pig. The pig is taken to market and sold to a restaurant and is handled by a chef with no apparent regard for kitchen hygiene, who shakes hands with the woman who became Patient Zero. No corporate conspiracy, no evil government machinations, no terrorists, just blind chance and carelessness and that, perhaps, is the genius of Contagion: as humans, we have a desperate, driving need to place some sort of significance to the things that happen to us. Our collective ego demands that there be something much larger, something more epic than just a bat, a banana, a pig, and a slob to be the vessel of our ruination. It’s too random for us to fathom because if such a seemingly minor series of events can be our undoing, then maybe we’re not at the top of the food chain after all and for many, that realization is the ultimate terror.

I would suggest then that the real villain of Contagion is not the virus; rather, it is the human race’s uncanny ability to discard its humanity with reckless abandon and degenerate into a torch-and-pitchfork mentality the moment things go sideways while, at the same moment, steadfastly proclaiming ourselves to be the masters of the universe when in reality, we face extinction in countless, minuscule ways every day. Unnerving, unflinching and raw, Contagion is a cautionary lesson in social evolution that demands our attention.

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
   — Yeats

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