Contagion *

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh US 2011). Warner Bros Pictures. NTSC Region 1. Widescreen 16:9. US$31.98. 

* – this DVD Review  was first published in Science Fiction Film and Television 6.1 (2013), 119-123, and is reprinted here with permission from Liverpool UP. I’d like to thank and acknowledge the input of the excellent editors of SFFTV, Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, as well as my colleague Jeff Diamanti with whom I had quite a discussion about optics, picture thinking, and totality (you can check out Jeff’s excellent blog here).

Contagion, like Steven Soderbergh’s earlier Traffic (Germany/US 2000), maintains a dynamic – one might even say dialectical – relationship between space and time. Just as Traffic works as a realist mapping of social space, charting the transnational drug trade and the limits to politics over the US–Mexico border, so Contagion does more than just follow an epidemic. It appears to be a study in global circulation, picturing the spread of the disease, press conferences, international and multinational video conferences and, ultimately, global circuits of capital in the form of commodity shipments earlier in the film and vaccine shipments later on. Traffic and Contagion can therefore be thought of as bookends to the first decade of the twenty first century, with the former imagining border concerns that fell out of public notice after 11 September 2001, and the latter – focused, as it is, on the circulation of disease, vaccine, rumour and speculation – following on the heels of the fallout from another type of speculation, the 2008 financial crisis. While Traffic suggests that everyone, drug lords and officials alike, is corrupt or corruptible (save, perhaps, for Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro)), Contagion suggests that ‘in a world gone catastrophically wrong, the only folks to be trusted are government officials’ (Clover 8). However, the complicity of government officials in the film seems to have little to do with what the circulation of disease renders visible.

In contrast to other contemporary apocalyptic and disaster films (for a review of a number of global pandemic films, see Maio), such as 2012 (Emmerich US 2009), Contagion rarely gives in to imagining the globe from the outside or above. Instead, the narrative tends to follow characters and end up in locations that are intimately related to the disease itself. Even the grandest shots of treatment centres, food lines or vaccination centres are only as wide or as long as a hockey arena or a public square could allow. The film works from within government agencies, families and villages, much like Traffic, elaborating the relation between space and time in two major zones: the United States and Hong Kong/China. Indeed, the dividing line between the two zones can be drawn between the politics of the family and the politics of the village – Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) calls his wife to warn her to leave Chicago before the city is quarantined, while Sun Feng (Chin Han) takes a world health official, Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), hostage in order to ransom her for the vaccine to save his village.

The film works through a variety of explanations for the breakout before positing a final narrative explanation. The foremost explanation is a moral one, with patient zero, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), being punished by the disease for her extra-marital affair. Indeed, we only get a brief shot of the man in Chicago she sleeps with and thus kills through the spread of MEV-1 (Meningoencephalitis Virus One). This narrative plays itself out between her step-daughter, Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and husband, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon). Jory’s father protectively keeps her in the house throughout the majority of the film, sheltering her from the disease and the outside world. Another narrative – conspiracy – is touted by blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who traces responses to the disease back to the financial relationship between corporate interests, the US government and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), even while he is paid off and lies about the effectiveness of forsythia, a homeopathic treatment described as a cure for the contagion.

Perhaps the strongest force in Contagion, though not necessarily as an explanation for the disease, is the enlightenment narrative of progress implied at the CDC as scientists store the cured MEV-1 alongside H1N1 and SARS and eight to ten other disease storage vats. In the film, this type of progress is brought about largely by rogues: Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) does not follow orders to destroy his attempts to grow the virus – a necessary step in curing the disease – and Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), in the spirit of her father’s story about the discovery that bacteria not stress caused ulcers, injects herself with the vaccine rather than waiting months for the approval of test subjects. However convincing this may be for the audience, the explanatory power of medicine and progress is challenged in the film as Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) struggles to explain the R0 (the basic reproductive rate) of the disease to Minnesota health officials. Their response is not encouraging: ‘We’re gonna need to walk the government through this before we start to freak everybody out. I mean, we can’t even tell people right now what they should be afraid of. We tried that with Swine Flu and all we did was get healthy people scared. It’s the biggest shopping weekend of the year.’ While these narratives animate the film, offering different plot threads to follow, a material, and thus more accurate, explanation is implied in the film’s final scene.

It is one of only a few scenes that fall out of narrative sequence, and the only one conspicuously to do so. Unlike Traffic’s inconclusive final scene, Contagion offers a narrative closure that retroactively answers any lingering questions the audience may have, but I will hold off on discussing it just for a moment. Other shots from out of sequence do not read as conspicuous because they rely on Dr Orantes reviewing the Hong Kong casino’s surveillance footage in the hopes of finding patient zero, and these dreamy shots of Beth Emhoff alive and enjoying herself shed little light on the causes of the disease. Caetlin Benson-Allott provocatively suggests that in the final scene ‘what we are seeing is the video record Orantes wants, not the one she has’ (15). Unlike the narratives generated by morality, conspiracy or the enlightenment, this final scene offers up a different interpretation, as the restoration of the status quo in the Emhoff household – Mitch Emhoff gives his daughter the prom she never got – signals the film’s final moment, an indication that nothing has taken place outside the status quo since the start.

In the scene in question, the camera moves in a revelatory fashion, tying together loose threads: a dissolve from the Emhoff household to dusky Macau Forest is sustained by what was the diegetic sound of prom music now turned non-diegetic, signalling, as we will see, a jump in temporality. The camera tilts up past dense foliage in the foreground to reveal heavy machinery bearing the discernible corporate marker AIMM: Alderson International Mining and Manufacturing, the company Beth Emhoff worked for and the reason for her trip to Hong Kong. The camera tracks left as it follows the machinery and tilts up to reveal trees, which then fall out of the shot as bats take flight from them. After a dissolve, the camera follows a bat from its perch on some bananas through its flight to a large structure. The shot cuts to frame the bat hanging from the ceiling inside the structure, which is only revealed to be a pig barn once the camera tilts down to follow some fruit and/or guano the bat drops amongst the pigs. The tempo picks up as a series of shots – reminiscent of those earlier in the film that elaborated the movement and development of the disease – follow the pig off the farm and into a restaurant, which is then revealed to be in the casino where Emhoff caught MEV-1 in the first place. The circle is completed as the chef who was preparing the pig goes out to greet Emhoff without washing his hands. A definitive title, ‘Day 1’, is displayed in the bottom centre of the shot just as the film ends.

The theory of the disease’s outbreak that ends up proving true is floated earlier in the film when Dr Hextall says, ‘somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat’. My reading of the last scene picks up on Benson-Allott’s analysis of Contagion as a critique of hypervisibility. Discussing films, from Fantastic Voyage (Fleischer US 1966) and Innerspace (Dante US 1987) to Blade: Trinity (Goyer US 2004) and The Thing (van Heijningen Jr US/Canada 2011), that ‘teach viewers that computers can render truths our senses cannot’, she argues that ‘by separating digital visual aids from the rest of the characters’ environments, Contagion indicates that seeing the virus – or even the moment of its transmission – can never fully explain the biological catalysts behind the epidemic’ (14). She nuances the spatial relations within the film by buttressing them with a dialectic of visibility. The ending of the film pulls back the veil on its ideological content – the film’s apparent moral lesson about Emhoff’s fidelity is revealed to fall short – and the scene with the bats and the pigs suggests a different narrative explanation, a different containment strategy: things are chaotic, the world is a big messy place, and the ways that we understand our place within it are propped up by little more than narrative alone. Benson-Allott reads this final scene in terms of what it reveals and the inherent limits of that representation: ‘Because it must find a way to represent transnational capital, Soderbergh’s final sequence participates in a logic of visible evidence that only leads to certain kinds of culprits – those which can be seen and identified – such as Beth Emhoff’s company’ (15). Indeed, that Dr Hextall’s explanation is shown to be accurate at the end of the film takes us closer to what it portrays throughout; a bridge is made between capitalist circulation and large-scale manufacturing and farm production, each with its intrinsic risks. The necessity of a named culprit results in a bad form of politics – AIMM is a bad corporation with bad practices, meaning that what is needed, then, is a good corporation.

Instead of stable explanation, we are left with a question about narrative film and its relation to depicting totality, about the relation of aesthetics and politics, which drives at the absent cause of Contagion itself. Contagion depicts not just the collision between the microscopic circulation of MEV-1 and the visibility of global actors through surveillance and digital technologies, but also figures the representability and manageability of the world as globe as a problem. The question is not about the mystery of the disease, which in retrospect is so easily vanquished (in an affirmation of enlightenment progress), but about the real remainder of Contagion, the real gap between the capitalist dialectics of circulation and production. The film suggests an answer in Jory’s question – ‘Why can’t there be a shot that keeps time from passing?’ – which can be read as a clever pun, if one has the inclination or desire to read film as having the potential to accomplish what Contagion sets out to do – to come to an understanding of social relations and the way disease, rumour, speculation and capital spread around the world. Jory’s question leaves out the element of space, an acute problem treated very carefully throughout the film. That is, if the world is now a fully global one, then Contagion reminds us that it is a fully capitalist one, too, but in such a way that implies we look to the absences for explanation, rather than what is made entirely, accurately visible. At its core, the film points out that the precise remainder of enlightenment progress cannot be represented – that is, the picture thinking of a contagion could only produce the question of totality and not its thought, not its cognitive map. That practice is left to us.

Works cited

Benson-Allott, Caetlin. ‘Out of Sight’. Film Quarterly 65.2 (2011): 14–15.

Clover, Joshua. ‘Fall and Rise’. Film Quarterly 65.2 (2011): 7–9.

Maio, Kathi. ‘It’s A Small (Sick) World – But Love Still Makes It Go Round’. Fantasy &

Science Fiction 122.1/2 (2012): 158–63.


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