Skip to Content

‘Contagion’ is a chilly examination of the dangers of connection

‘Contagion’ is a chilly examination of the dangers of connection



Written by Scott Z. Burns

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

USA, 2011

The most unsettling element of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (which is, by any metric, a deeply discomfiting film) is its plausibility. The film has a clinical approach that underlines how possible its central crisis is and how powerless we would be to stop it. The film has a global scope and an all-star cast, but what resonates most is the idea that this could happen. Anywhere. Anytime. To any one of us.

Contagion is a film about connections, the ways they can harm us, and how they may ultimately be the key to our salvation. It is Beth’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) connection to a former lover that helps the disease spread more quickly. It is her betrayal of her husband (Matt Damon) that facilitates his developing paranoia and isolation during the outbreak. The connections help a global cadre of doctors (including Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Elliott Gould) learn how to fight the outbreak. These connections also enable the disease to spread across the globe with incredible speed. Soderbergh is extremely mindful of how vital our ties to one another are to our survival; he is just also keenly aware of how dangerous those bonds can be to our well-being.

Contagion is about how the virus spreads, to be sure, but it is also about the spread of fear and panic, of doubt and distrust, that is equally communicable. Its vast scope leads to uneven results (the subplot about Damon’s struggles to keep his daughter safe as society unravels around him is great, for example, while the kidnapping of the character played by Marion Cotillard is…less effective), yet the film’s chilly, distant tone is consistent throughout. What matters most is that each glimpse contributes to the larger picture about how tenuous our relationships are and how close we may be to tumbling into chaos.

Contagion is a movie about links that seems afraid to get too close to its audience, which adds to the sense of unease it develops. The things that tie us together define us—from our families, to our communities, and even our nations. Yet these things are not nearly as stable as we might like to think. They are prone to falling out of balance and worse, to breaking down entirely. The systems we’ve built to serve us can crash in an instant, brought down by disease, propaganda, or just our inherent selfishness. Our increasingly interconnected lives benefit us in ways big and small. They also make us vulnerable, though, to infections of every kind.

— Jordan Ferguson