In a time that seems to have no precedent, here is an unprecedented cinematic event: A film from 2011 has suddenly become the movie of the year. I’m talking, of course, about “Contagion.” Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller was no slouch at the box office upon its initial release, grossing $135 million, but it faded quickly from our national consciousness until last month, when fears of COVID-19 forced its rise to the top of the queue of virtually household in America. Have you seen it recently? Why not?
Now that you mention it, I can think of a few reasons. Maybe you’re looking for an escape. If so, stay tuned to this space, as I plan to unveil lots of home viewing recommendations over the coming weeks. The screenplay of “Contagion,” written by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns, was well-researched, and it bears too many alarming parallels to COVID-19 to be mentioned here. I’ll try, anyway. There’s the fact that the virus came from animal agriculture; the directive from the CDC to shut down early research; those scientists’ heroic rejection of the CDC, leading to an early breakthrough in testing; the peddling of false cures online; and, of course, the general unpreparedness of our health care system to deal with a pandemic of this scale.
So how is “Contagion” still so much fun to watch? Credit to the filmmakers, who draw inspiration from an unusual place. Soderbergh and Burns are on record as having mapped out the story based on ‘70s disaster flicks like “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” The formula is simple: Introduce a bunch of larger-than-life movie stars, then have them killed off one by one. For “Contagion,” Soderbergh lured major stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law. He also packed the cast with top-notch character actors Laurence FIshburne, John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Bryan Cranston, and Elliot Gould. As a new star pops onto our screen, our brain tells us that he or she will be the main character, the one we will follow throughout the rest of the film. Then they are promptly killed off, or they leave the film for other reasons.
It’s a brilliant trick that accomplishes two things. It keeps you engaged with the narrative in every moment – because you don’t know which one of them will be a character’s last. But it also serves the story. Watching a major movie star get killed off early in a film is a shock to the system, and it approximates the feeling of being in a major pandemic, when your sense of normalcy is upended on a seemingly daily basis. It’s the only film to truly represent what our world feels like right now. If only the characters in “Contagion” had a film as good as “Contagion” to watch and take their mind off their troubles.