Contagion

First of all, I’ve seen a few places around the net where people are asking if this is based on the book Contagion by Robin Cook. I’ve even spotted a few places where people are warning others away from the film, because it’s so totally nothing like the book they should just go read it instead of bothering with the flick. Well, here’s the thing — it’s nothing like the novel because it isn’t based on the novel. A guy named Scott Z. Burns wrote the script.


First of all, I’ve seen a few places around the net where people are asking if this is based on the book Contagion by Robin Cook. I’ve even spotted a few places where people are warning others away from the film, because it’s so totally nothing like the book they should just go read it instead of bothering with the flick. Well, here’s the thing — it’s nothing like the novel because it isn’t based on the novel. A guy named Scott Z. Burns wrote the script.

It has Matt Damon in it, anyway, in his latest since Adjustment Bureau, and I’m so glad he’s so busy, because that gives me plenty of movies to look forward to reviewing. His wife, Beth, is played by Gwyneth Paltrow of Iron Man 2. She has a cute little 6-year-old son and a job with a company called AIMM Alderson that requires her to travel a lot. It’s apparently some sort of international mining conglomerate. They send her to Hong Kong for some reason, and by the time she gets back home to Minneapolis on Day 2, she’s nearly dead. This movie counts days a lot, since they are numbered. I mean, important.

To say the cast is star-studded is something of an understatement. Laurence Fishburne from Armored plays Dr. Ellis Cheever, who’s someone very important in the CDC. The name is actually Center for Disease Control and Prevention these days, but no one’s bothered trying to add a P, which would have been doomed to failure, anyway, I’m sure. Working with him is Jennifer Ehle from The King’s Speech, here playing Dr. Ally Hextall and sounding as American as you please. Kate Winslet, also sounding as American as can be, plays Dr. Erin Mears, who gets to go to Minneapolis, track infected people, and interview Matt Damon, who is surprisingly healthy considering he’s just watched his wife and adorable 6-year-old stepson die horribly of a really, really contagious disease.

For the World Health Organization, lucky Dr. Leonora Orantes, played by Marion Cotillard of Inception, gets to go to Hong Kong, aka Contagion Central. And Elliot Gould from Ocean’s 13 rounds out the list of people with doctorates as Dr. Ian Sussman, the go-to guy for viruses, apparently, who gets to try to grow large quantities of the stuff in the lab so they can experiment with it.

Then there are the smarmy people. Well, one person, at least. Jude Law of Repo Men plays Alan Krumwiede, crusading blogger and all-around truth seeker. Well, he seeks the truth as long as he can use it to make big business and corporate media look bad, anyway. I’m always torn on that. Yes, big business can be awful, and corporate media can so easily turn into Fox, but that doesn’t automatically mean that a random blogger with a camera and a talent for being nosy is any better. Certainly Alan isn’t any better, but then, Jude Law is the go-to guy for smarmy.

As you might guess, with so many big names, no one really gets to be the star. Except maybe the disease, which gets christened MEV-1. It’s supposed to be sort of like encephalitis, sort of like meningitis, and sort of like bird flu, but no one ever quite figures out what it is. Some government types ask if it’s possible to weaponize bird flu, to which Laurence Fishburne replies that no one needs to try because the birds are already doing that… which is sort of wrong, sorry as I am to contradict Morpheus. The flu virus, like all viruses, mutates like wild, which is why you need a new flu shot every year, but to blame that on the birds is like blaming the houses when there’s a termite infestation in the neighborhood. I know, he was probably just trying to be pithy, but still.

I also have to contradict Morpheus about something else. He compares the current problem to the 1918 influenza epidemic — unsurprisingly, since it’s a good parallel — and says that 1 percent of the world’s population died. Since the world’s population at the time was roughly 1.8 billion, that’s 18 million people, which is a huge number, impossible to imagine. Except it was actually worse than that. The lowest death estimate is 21 million, but today it’s believed to have been at least 50 million. Some estimate it at 100 million. That’s between 2.7 and 5.5 percent of the population, dying in the space of about six months.

Okay, yes, I have a book called The Great Influenza, about the 1918 epidemic, which I’ve read three times. I’m weird that way. But it’s a good book!

But who knows? Maybe they played that down in order to make the movie’s death toll seem that much worse. And it’s bad, let me tell you. The film gets three and three-quarters out of five; the death toll gets zero. It really is more the story of a disease than of any of the characters, so keep that in mind if you see it because I think that might throw some people off. There are certainly characters you can connect with, or at least love to hate, but MEV-1 steals all the scenes. It fuels self-imposed quarantines, riots, paranoid conspiracy theories, and hypochondria (Did you realize you’ve probably touched your face with your germ-ridden hands at least three times while you were reading this?), all while going blithely about its own business, utterly ignorant of all the fuss it’s causing. I guess viruses are just like the worst sort of big corporations. Who knew?