Contagion or Confusion?

September 22, 2011

Director Steven Soderbergh's new film misses every opportunity to shed light on a world that actually is at risk of deadly pandemics, says Matt Hoke.

MAYBE I was naïve to expect Contagion to be a radical movie. As a new fan of Mike Davis who is just cracking open The Monster at Our Door, about the threat of a global pandemic, and amid a world of Wikileaks, revolution and labor conflict simmering under the surface, I thought Contagion might actually have something to say.

My mistake, ultimately, was to confuse Contagion with a zombie movie. It was the opposite. [NOTE: This review contains numerous spoilers.]

In fact, the movie seemed to send the message that the real "contagion" was not biological disease, but was rather social tension, cynicism about our governments, enraged riots and our culture of "viral" Internet communication.

Accustomed to the socially critical tendency in many zombie-virus movies to blame the military-industrial complex and to critique either the brutality or negligence of the government's response, I was shocked at how much everyone got along (except China, of course). Any real official corruption, besides one little tip-off to a family member, was absent.

Jude Law in Contagion
Jude Law in Contagion

When America hogged the vaccine for itself at the end, the fact that this might be a problem--or that the U.S. might still be affected by an untreated epidemic raging across the rest of the planet--was apparently not deemed film-worthy.

But the worst part was those constant shots of clean, ultra-modern offices and boardrooms, full of compassionate bureaucrats doing their best as they sat around tables, watching updates from the guy in charge. Give me Resident Evil any day. It puts those nice clean offices in their proper sinister light.

Jude Law's character Alan Krumwiede seemed to be the only sharp, skeptical consciousness among all the bland, bureaucratic optimism that everything was under control. Too bad he was the bad guy. In fact, the antagonist of this movie seemed to introduce a completely new kind of villainization: Internet-plugged-in, gadget-wielding, credentials-lacking, paradigm-defying media personalities. Is this the new incarnation of demonized reporters?

And it later turns out that Krumwiede is fronting for a shadowy conspiracy of Wall Street investors. Now, a lot of my activist friends closely resemble the characterization above. But they aren't snapping digital photos and Twittering their fingers away in order to speculate on the markets and take advantage of disaster. They are doing it to expose the catastrophe that is contemporary capitalism. If they do it for a living, it's not lucrative. Most of them never make a dime.

Review: Movies

Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns, starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet.

How odd that Contagion fused this new demographic of digital truth-tellers with Wall Street scammers. It is certainly true that there are people who use the Internet in that fashion. However, this is nothing but an unfortunate byproduct of the positive reality: the Internet is a democratizing force which allows previously marginalized voices to be heard. For this reason, I feel this movie demonized the Internet in a way that is utterly irresponsible.

EVEN WORSE, Contagion also seemed to hate crowds. It almost had the perspective of a 19th-century English gentleman--the authorities are taking care of the problem, respect law and order, and for God's sake, don't be like those filthy masses who gather into violent mobs.

The several instances of rioting in the film were depicted as irrational, selfish and futile. Ironically, the film came out in the wake of an urban uprising in London whose stage was set by poverty, budget cuts, racism and police brutality. It also comes after the Middle East revolutions, which--as revolutions tend to do--involved plenty of crowds, scuffling and distrust of the regime in power.

The swindling Alan Krumwiede, in a televised debate, said something to the effect of "They didn't protect you from Wall Street or Katrina, they won't protect you from this." I almost cheered, though I wish he had added BP and its toxic cleanup to the list. Too bad this morsel of reality came from the mouth of the movie's antagonist, who himself was secretly working for Wall Street.

How confused. Distrust of the authorities seemed almost as bad as the virus itself, as if we have no reason to doubt them, and to do so is the real root of social breakdown. The film contained frequent mockery of people believing Internet rumors, but when the ruling order has discredited itself as thoroughly as it has, that's the natural result. If we were living in a world where the authorities could be trusted, there wouldn't be an international viral threat. We'd get rid of mass-agribusiness and viral slums--for starters.

It's worth nothing that Contagion was total disaster-sploitation, with its release two days before the 10th anniversary of September 11. The producers made sure to include the phrase "ground zero" just to tighten our stomachs. Between this and the constant replays of the towers getting hit on TV, I feel taken advantage of.

In fact, this movie was the perfect embodiment of TV news and disaster coverage: a flat consciousness with no depth of explanation, a continual amnesiac flow of updates and verbiage, radiating anxiety. The fact that Contagion smacked the viewer with a flood of realistic details rather than developing its 10 or so plots made the resemblance to TV uncanny.

The closing scene of the movie represents the full crescendo of this failure to analyze or criticize. The film flashed back to the origin of the virus, apparently a bat in Hong Kong dropping a piece of fruit among a sty of unfortunate swine. So what lesson do we walk away with? Maybe this was some attempt to bring up the viral dangers of factory farming and the global food market, as may have crossed the mind of those already familiar with these issues. But to most people, it probably came off like this: "PIGS! IT CAME FROM PIGS! PIGS ARE THE ANSWER! THE WORLD WILL END BECAUSE OF PIGS!"

Most of the audience probably walked away with a mood of pessimistic inevitability--the pigs shall be farmed, the pigs shall be eaten, and we shall all surely die. It was as if the movie's "radical message" was simply that disaster can happen, and not an exploration of why.

This is besides the fact that the virus could have been just as easily bred and magnified among humans, because the economically imposed dirt, density and omnipresent feces of the world's slums aren't so different from a pigsty.

Contagion totally blew the opportunity to send any kind of message about this world that we live in, this world that teeters toward apocalypse, and the underlying cause: rushed, unquestioned, globalized, mass-impoverishing, unregulated mass production in the name accumulating profits.

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