The 2011 virus film Contagion has some striking similarities to our coronavirus situation

 Anna Jacoby-Heron, left and Matt Damon in Contagion, Picture: Warner Bros.
Anna Jacoby-Heron, left and Matt Damon in Contagion, Picture: Warner Bros.

Contagion (MA15+)

3 stars

Currently riding high on the download and streaming charts, Contagion (released in 2011) offers a view of the world in the grip of a deadly virus outbreak. There are some uncanny similarities to our coronavirus situation, and a viewing might leave you with a cathartic sense of how things could play out in the months ahead. The movie is a high-class ensemble piece, with director Steven Soderbergh reimagining the disaster genre of the 1970s. The star-studded cast find their characters involved in a series of interlocking narrative threads, as everyone across the globe tries to deal with the chaos. It's clearly become a go-to film for those in isolation looking for answers or hope.

The film opens with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from Hong Kong to suburban Minneapolis. Initially feeling jet-lagged, she rapidly develops a fever and collapses with a seizure in front of her husband Mitch (Matt Damon). At the same time, a number of people in Hong Kong suffer an identical fate, while an outbreak gains traction in Chicago where Beth organised a layover before returning home. As it becomes clear that a deadly virus is at work, WHO epidemiologist Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is dispatched to find the source of the infection.

A second narrative strand is the race for the cure. Working at the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), Dr Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) despatches Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to the front lines of infection, while Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) tries to isolate the virus in a lab, the first step towards creating a vaccine. She gets some help from an external researcher at the University of California, Dr Sussman (Elliot Gould).

When there's the "officials making tough decisions" narrative: Cheever and his grumpy boss, Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston), are frequently seen giving media briefings and have to reconcile their duties to the nation with their love for family, friends and colleagues. These include Cheever's fiancée (Sanaa Lathan), and a lowly CDC cleaner (John Hawkes).

Jude Law opens up the conspiracy theory narrative with a bizarre portrayal of Alan Krumwiede, a loopy blogger with a dreadful Australian accent who claims that the CDC are lying and that he has a cure for the disease.

As all these threads play out, Matt Damon provides the everyday- man perspective, isolated in his suburban home and witnessing the slow collapse of society around him.

The movie's set-up contains some prescient iconography. Soderbergh illustrates the spread of the disease with a sequence of touching, and Dr Hextall explains just how many times humans touch their face with their hands, the reason for the rapid spread. Other frequent imagery is the mask-wearing public, critically significant medical buildings, empty streets and the maps and infection counts that document the progress of the pandemic. Perhaps the most chilling similarity to our real situation is when the CDC investigation reveals that the virus passed into humans from bats via pigs. In China.

It's a fascinating account of the good, the bad and the ugly behaviour that comes with rapid social change. Apart from Law - who seems completely out of place channelling Julian Assange - the cast are excellent, with Paltrow's tragic flashbacks providing an eerie sense of the vulnerability we share in a busy social life that already seems oddly distant.

Written by Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote The Informant! for Soderbergh and Damon) the extensive expert research that informed the story all helps Soderbergh establish an authentic, almost documentary feel. Cliff Martinez adds to the tension and pathos with a superb electronic score.

It's a far superior film to Outbreak (1995), about the Ebola virus and starring Dustin Hoffman, which is also having a popular comeback at the moment. But if you are in the mood for a really emotional virus flick, try Perfect Sense (made the same year as Contagion), a love story with Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. If it doesn't convince you of the need for staying at home, then I'm not sure anything will.

This story Viral epidemic brings out the good, the bad and the ugly first appeared on The Canberra Times.