Saturday, September 10, 2011


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Contagion (directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns) is a major Hollywood production (Warner Brothers) about a fictional world-wide outbreak of a particularly virulent swine-flu-type virus that suddenly appears in Hong Kong and comes to kill millions of people across the United States and, indeed, world-wide before a vaccine is developed to bring the epidemic under control.  The movie was produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has dedicated a "current feature" section on their website to the film.

In the film, Beth Enhoff (played by Gwenyth Paltrow) flies back to Minneapolis (via Chicago) after a business trip to Hong Kong looking like she's come down with "some kind of a bug," probably the flu.  It's November, just before Thanksgiving.  She's flown across all kinds of time zones.  Hong Kong is much warmer that time of year than either Chicago or Minneapolis.  Would one be that surprised if she "came down with something" as a result of all that traveling all that distance and finding oneself in all kinds of different climates and environments in a short amount a time?  Probably not.  However, the next day after she "pats her son on the head" as he heads off to school, her husband Mitch (played by Matt Damon) is horrified to see her collapse in their kitchen and go into convulsions.  He calls 911.  The paramedics come take her to the hospital.  She goes into convulsions again in the emergency room and dies.  Mitch is left stunned to the core when the emergency room doctor and attendants tell him that his wife is dead.  At the time, they tell him that it was probably meningitis or encephalitis (probably the latter) and that an autopsy _could_ be done but would probably not reveal anything useful.  Shell-shocked, Mitch leaves the body of his wife at the hospital to begin plans for a funeral.

THE NEXT DAY, Mitch is called by the school nurse that his son is ill with a fever and to come to take him home.  Within hours, the son's dead as well.  In the meantime, a sweating man collapses in Tokyo on a commuter bus and goes into convulsions.  Someone videotapes him convulsing and posts this on YouTube.  Additionally, we see a bicycle courier in Hong Kong again sweating, stopping to catch a breath.  He leans against a wall to rest and soon collapses/dies...

With two members of Mitch's family dying in 48 hours of acute flu like illness, Mitch himself is initially quarantined by Minnesota public health authorities.  When he does not come down with symptoms within a couple of days, he is released.  But in the meantime, the Minnesota public health authorities inform the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.  Both the Minnesota public health authorities and the CDC are in contact with the World Health Organization and are informed of the deaths of the man in Tokyo and several similar deaths in Hong Kong.  Dr. Ellis Cheever (played by Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC sends an assistant Dr. Erin Mears (played by Kate Winslet) up to Minneapolis to liaison with the Minnesota public health authorities.  The WHO sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (played by Marion Cotillard) from its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland to Hong Kong to liaison with public health authorities there.  It is soon established that the man who collapsed and died in Tokyo had been on business in Hong Kong as well.  However, soon a man in Chicago, who hadn't been to Hong Kong is reported to have come down with the same illness (and died).  While interviewing Mitch, Dr. Mears asks if his deceased wife had recently visited anybody in Chicago.  Mitch tells her that the only one that he would think of that his wife would know in Chicago was an ex-boyfriend of hers.  When he mentions his name, it turns out the man who died in Chicago of the same symptoms...

In the meantime, other kids from Mitch's son's school _as well as the school nurse_ come down with the same symptoms and die within a few days of their appearance.  And people in Tokyo, Chicago and Hong Kong are coming down with symptoms and dying rapidly as well.  An autopsy is now conducted on Mitch's wife's brain and tissue samples are rapidly sent to the CDC, other viral specialists including one in San Francisco and to the WHO.  The virus that's isolated is 2/3 from a pig 1/3 from a bat and had somehow made the leap from bat/pig to human somewhere in or around Hong Kong.

All this is discovered within 2 weeks of the first death, Mitch's wife, due to this illness.  However, by this time, thousands of people across the world are coming down with the virus and it is killing 1/3-1/2 of them.   It is clear therefore that the incubation period is very short (2-3 days) and transmission apparently taking place by touch and/or cough.  Dr. Erin Mears begins coordinating with FEMA in Minneapolis to temporarily convert a local national guard armory into a centralized quarantine/treatment center for those effected by the virus, when she herself succumbs to the virus as well...

To quarantine large numbers of people (and to bury them) requires the calling out of the national guard and panic/chaos begin to set-in.  Grocery stores start to get looted.  The governor of Wisconsin panics and orders his national guard to seal the borders between Wisconsin and Minnesota (and presumably Illinois).

With the virus having been isolated if extremely dangerous, a world wide effort (but only in appropriately sealed level-4 isolation facilities) begins to develop a vaccine.  But the process is slow requiring months before a vaccine could be both developed and then grown en masse for use by the general public.  This feeds all kinds of conspiracy rumors, spread now in real-time on the internet/blogosphere as well as all kinds of quack advice for "cures." Jude Law plays a particularly opportunistic (when not paranoid) blogger named Alan Krumwiede.  In China, desperate villagers from a town particularly hit by the virus abduct the WHO's official (Dr Lorena Orantes, mentioned above) who had been sent down there to work with local authorities to contain the virus outbreak.  The villagers (along with the local public health authorities) demand that they be among the "first in line" for the vaccine when it comes on line ...

The scenario is hair-raising and, of course, does "end well" ... though only after the deaths of millions around the globe.  I'll leave it to viewers to decide if they consider the scenario fully credible.

To be honest, I found it surprising that despite portrayals of apparent disruptions in food distribution in the U.S. (looting of shops, etc), both gasoline and electrical power continued to flow apparently without problems.  Another recent program called After Armageddon (2010) produced by the History Channel suggested that the distribution systems for both gasoline/diesel and electrical power would become vulnerable as key people either fell ill, became frightened or otherwise became impeded from going to work due to lack of fuel, roadblocks, stalled traffic, quarantines, etc.
On the other hand, the characteristics of the virus in Contagion (very short incubation time on the order of 2-3 days, and very easy method of transmission - by touch or cough) may have made the scenario presented in this movie a "very rare" or "worst case" scenario in its own right.

In any case, though the movie is _not_ for the squeamish (not much is shown but the topic itself might frighten many people), it does give one much to think about, and then to _really appreciate_ the work of "first responders," in this case, in the medical field.

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