In retrospect, I should have realized Contagion would not be an easy watch in the middle of a pandemic.
But I’d noticed the calendar creeping on up six months since “it all” began — since the day Tom Hanks announced he’d caught the virus, the NBA suspended its season, and a whole lot of Americans realized the disease had really and truly come for us. I wanted to do something to mark half a year spent hiding in my apartment, scrubbing my hands, and fearing the outside world, and with nothing else to do, I looked to the movie so many others had turned to at the start of the pandemic.
I’d seen Contagion before, back when it first came out in 2011. It was a fun thought experiment at the time, a thrillingly plausible what-if about a scenario I knew was technically possible, but still couldn’t quite bring myself to believe might actually come to pass. Now that it had, I thought it’d be interesting to revisit it. I figured I’d nod along at what it got right and roll my eyes at what it got wrong, and maybe even come away with a nugget or two of wisdom, and I did. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional bruising.
For the most part, I’ve been lucky these past several months: Unlike so many others, I hadn’t lost my job or my home, seen loved ones fall ill, or become sick myself. All I’d really had to contend with is a free-floating sense of dread, which I can outrun sometimes but never for good. Contagion, however, seemed to focus that anxiety into one place, distilling it down to something potent enough to punch me in the gut. From the other side of my rewatch, here are my biggest takeaways.
1. Yes, Contagion got a lot of details right
The virus wreaking havoc in Contagion may be fictional, but the way it spreads and the consequences it has were based in real experiences and meticulously researched science. In March 2020, that made Contagion look like a potential roadmap for our uncertain future. No wonder it trended on iTunes: It may not have been comforting, exactly — things get real bad in Contagion before they get better — but at a time when the entire future felt like a giant question mark, it could be grimly reassuring to picture what might come next.
And you know what? For the most part, Contagion has turned out to be pretty accurate. The sight of empty offices and ransacked grocery stores that once seemed surreal are familiar now. Terms like “social distancing” and “R-naught” have entered our everyday vocabulary. Conspiracy theories and snake-oil remedies have flourished, because human nature is what it is. Contagion even correctly predicted widespread protests, riots, and curfews, though in the film they’re directly related to the pandemic and not to racism and police brutality.
It didn’t nail every little detail. Contagion did not realize how much of our time we’d spend looking for toilet paper, perfecting sourdough recipes, and trying to explain to our relatives how to unmute themselves on Zoom calls. But most of those are quibbles, rooted in the fact that Contagion‘s MEV-1 is not COVID-19 and their universe is not our universe.
2. Those emotions hit much, much harder now
Where Contagion really hurts is in the bigger things it gets right — and wrong.
It doesn’t take a scientific expert or an artistic genius to guess that panic, uncertainty, and despair would follow the rapid global spread of a deadly disease. But imagining those struggles is one thing. Experiencing them is another, and the situations in Contagion hit harder because they weren’t theoretical to me anymore.
Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) calls to mind all the officials and frontline workers trying to stop and treat the virus at their own risk. Her burial in a plastic bag — because workers ran out of body bags days ago — conjures memories of morgue trucks and PPE shortages. The arguably selfish actions taken by Sun Feng (Chin Han) and Dr. Cheever’s (Laurence Fishburne) ring truer after we’ve had to consider the lengths we’d go to in order to save our own loved ones. Even a tossed-off line about a casino strike gains extra resonance at a time when we’ve seen workers forced to choose between risking their jobs and risking their health.
Less drastic actions gutted me, too. There’s a scene where a boy visits his grieving girlfriend to offer condolences, and her terrified father Mitch (Matt Damon) refuses to let him in. “I just don’t want to take any chances,” he explains to his daughter. She’s heartbroken but eventually nods, accepting his decision. Loneliness is the price they must pay for safety. But I didn’t comprehend just how steep a cost it was until I came to know it myself.
3. Contagion wasn’t cynical enough
As dark as Contagion gets, however, its most glaring miscalculation may be that it’s actually not pessimistic enough. It’s hard to fault the film for that. How many of us were cynical enough to anticipate what was coming?
This movie did not anticipate that even as some people locked themselves away for fear of harming themselves or others, others would simply give up. There are no politicians in Contagion arguing that thousands or millions dead are a reasonable sacrifice for reopening the economy, probably because such an idea would have seemed so monstrous as to be completely unfathomable. We do see officials in the film wary of causing a panic or fretting about the economy, but none downplaying the threat to the degree that Trump apparently did.
The pandemic does bring out some bad actors in the movie — notably, conspiracy theorist Krumwiede (Jude Law), who fakes an illness so he can profit off sales of an ineffective homeopathic “cure.” But he and his followers seem to represent a hairline crack in the response, not a chasm. The movie underestimates how rapidly misinformation would spread, how politicized and polarized American society would become at a time when it most needs to band together, and how badly our institutions would fail us as a result.
In Contagion, Mitch confidently reassures his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), that the American government won’t run out of the vaccine, because they already promised they wouldn’t. Meanwhile, it’s hard to believe Americans in our reality would ever trust the official word so blindly — and given how poorly our government has handled the situation, our lack of faith seems justified.
4. Contagion has become a glimpse into a better timeline
If Contagion offered a rough timeline for our coronavirus experience, we are now stuck somewhere between the second and third acts. The initial flurry of confusion has settled down a bit, and been replaced for many of us by the tedium of endless days stuck at home. (Another thing Contagion missed: just how boring a pandemic could be.)
The characters, at this point, are 29 days into their pandemic. The film then jumps ahead 102 days to the rollout of a vaccine. The entire film takes place over 135 days, or about four and a half months.
In contrast, we are over 180 days in if you count from the day all the sports were canceled and all the movies were delayed in the U.S., or over 250 if you count all the way back to the very beginnings of the virus in China. And unlike our fictional counterparts, we have no idea when a vaccine might come along to free us from this nightmare.
Contagion doesn’t end entirely happily. Multiple characters have died, Mitch and Jory are still stuck at home, and Krumwiede is still out there trying to convince people not to get vaccinated. It’s going to be almost another year before the entire population has had their shots, and those without it will have to continue social distancing in the meantime.
But it does end on a note of hope. Jory slow-dances with her recently vaccinated boyfriend in her living room, a two-person prom to make up for the school dance she’ll have to miss. Upstairs, Mitch flips through photos of his late wife, finally allowing himself to grieve after months of trying to keep it together. The pandemic isn’t over yet, but it’s close enough that Mitch’s earlier promise to Jory that things would “get normal” again doesn’t sound like a lie.
In our world, it still does. In the third act of Contagion, and in the saggy second act of our own pandemic, the movie stopped being a theory or a prophecy, and became a glimpse into some other, better timeline we hoped for, but never got. At the start of Contagion, I cried because everything I was watching in the movie felt so true and familiar. At its end, I was crying because none of it did.
Contagion is now streaming on HBO Max.
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