A quick rub of your nose. A light scratch on your cheek. A contemplative tug to your upper lip. You may not notice and you’ll rarely think about it, but the truth is you touch your hands to your face somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 times a day.
Of course, that’s not the only thing you’re touching. And every microbe, germ and bit of bacteria you accidentally pick up from that public railing, that random doorknob, that computer mouse in your hand right now, ends up being carried right up to your eyes, nose and mouth. From there it’s a quick trip to your lungs, your bloodstream. It’s as natural as breathing. And breathe we do.
Of course, none of that is on Beth Emhoff’s mind as she sits at the airport bar after a long trip back from Hong Kong. She isn’t thinking about it as she lightly coughs and digs her hand into the communal bowl of peanuts. Or when she gets her credit card back from the nose-rubbing guy behind the counter. Nor did she think about it when she grabbed, touched, picked up, leaned on, bumped into, kissed or caressed the hundreds of things and people she came in contact with over the last 48 hours.
Somewhere in that time period, though, she touched something that held an exotic virus. A teeny-tiny aggressive disease-maker. A mutating combination of genetic material that ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time for poor Beth.
And I don’t say poor Beth as a careless exercise in false sympathy either. Because this young woman started her rush toward death long before she felt its first symptom. Her immune system was already irreparably collapsing as she sipped her beer—spreading her own invisible viral bacteria that someone nearby unknowingly … transported to his face.
Contagion confronts us with what happens next.
The movie may well be a scary reminder that we can never be totally safe from disease, but it also points to the many dedicated health professionals who put everything on the line to try to protect us. Humanity’s propensity for compassion and self-sacrifice is heralded over and over.
For example, Doctor Mears is assigned to “contain” the spread of the disease in Beth Emhoff’s Minnesota hometown. She works tirelessly, putting her own life in danger daily. And even when she’s infected and on the verge of death herself, she struggles to comfort someone else who’s in pain. In another case, a doctor is kidnapped to be ransomed for doses of a rare vaccine for a disease-threatened village. Instead of fighting her kidnappers, however, she does all she can to help care for the people and their children.
A researcher, realizing that following approved testing standards would take up too much valuable time in which thousands of people would die, injects herself with a promising but potentially deadly vaccine.
[Spoiler Warning] When a working vaccine is discovered, an important CDC official is given one of the early doses. Instead of using it, however, he gives it away to a neighbor’s son. A father goes to great lengths to protect his daughter from the disease, keeping her isolated indoors for months. Then, once her boyfriend is vaccinated, the dad buys his daughter a dress and sets up a prom night for her in their living room.
When a compassionate doctor realizes that her efforts have caused her to contract the virus, she softly cries out with an almost prayer-like, “Oh God, no.” After all the nurses have abandoned their posts, a nun is seen still doing all she can to care for the stricken. Someone opines that a doctor thinks of himself as “Jesus in a lab coat.”
In a phone conversation we find out that Beth rearranged her flight to be able to have a sexual rendezvous with an old boyfriend in Chicago.
The end result of the infection is a deadly brain hemorrhage. Victims collapse in a violently elongated foam-mouthed seizure before dying. Early on we see this painful-looking death repeated several times. After her demise, Beth’s body is sent to be autopsied, and we watch a doctor saw open the top of her head, flipping a gory flap of scalp toward the camera. As the death toll rises, bodies are buried in fields that are turned into long, open graves.
Tension builds as people search for food and medical help. Eventually things become unbearable, and crowds begin looting stores, smashing windows and setting buildings on fire. We also see thugs in ski masks breaking into homes with guns, manhandling the occupants and stealing whatever they can lay their hands on. Someone watches helplessly as gunfire flashes inside his neighbor’s home.
One f-word and about 10 s-words. God’s and Jesus’ names are misused a couple of times each. We hear “a‑‑” and “h‑‑‑.”
Beth and others drinks beer at that airport bar. Experimental vaccines and even a homeopathic remedy are talked about, tested (on monkeys and humans) and distributed.
Placebos are handed out instead of the real vaccine in one case. An online blogger purposely lies, misleading millions to personally profit from their misery.
A lot of people like being scared by horror movies. They enjoy those shadowy creature features that set their pulse to pounding. Of course there’s always a certain comfort in knowing that those frightening scenes can never really happen. We know that when we get home ghostly children won’t be crab-crawling across our ceilings and our zombified neighbors won’t be shrieking and lurching in our direction as the garage door descends.
Contagion, though, is a scare flick of a completely different sneeze. It’s a story that could be all too real. We may convince ourselves that the miracles of modern medicine can protect us from harm. But the invisible world of germs is far from controllable. And this movie drives home that point with an ice pick. USA Today reported that director Steven Soderbergh said the movie “could do to elevator buttons what Jaws did to the beach.”
Indeed, this pic turns all things microscopic into our worst enemies. It’s filled with enough unsettling health facts to turn rubber gloves and Saran wrap suits into a viable fashion choice this winter. And while it’s doing that, it also displays the worst of mankind—rioting, pillaging and fighting in the face of catastrophe. We see the spasms of death and the goopy autopsies that follow. We’re peppered with profanity.
Contagion is also a well-made drama (decorated by a crowd of A-list stars, helmed by a highly respected director) that draws you in with believable characters and an evenly paced story of heroism and selflessness. It tells of a deep love for others. It’s a picture that made me pause, to reevaluate and to think … about washing my hands. And my coffee cup. And my keyboard. And my desk. And my colleague’s cubicle. And my …
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.