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Contagion is in the air we breathe. It’s in our blood. It is the language we speak when we say anything today. We’re literally soaking in it.

Contagion PosterI give you exhibit A, the new film Contagion, for those unable to recognize the present apocalyptic zeitgeist of the not-too-subtle proclamations of end-days zealots or would-be revolutionaries threatening to break the back of the system. We are quickly becoming a nation of nuts – survivalists, conspiracy-theorists and fringe fatalists, a culture so obsessed with collapse that it really can only thrive if things go wrong.

Your shell-shocked uncle living off the grid in the woods in a bunker with a stockpile of ammo, MREs, 23 sled dogs and tin-foil hats is in vogue in our new America. Expect a call any day now, not from Jerry Springer or even FOX news, but from CNN or Bloomberg, inviting him to share his views on the stock market or unemployment. The weird is becoming way too normal these days in the United States. Freaky has gone mainstream in a big way.

So we find in Contagion, not the overheated rants of a science fiction, but a film of almost documentary sterility. The story of how a lethal virus spreads across the globe killing millions, Contagion even treats the shocking – a dead Gwyneth Paltrow having her skull peeled back, for example – as an everyday affair. There are survivors here, but no heroes and certainly no last-minute reprieves. That is part of the old world, where one could hope that Bruce Willis would dismantle the bomb in just the nick of time. No one wants to watch that sort of garbage anymore.  

Instead we get a countdown as millions of lives are lost. A worldwide team of scientists try to understand what the virus is so they can stop it. But to really understand the virus they must also retrace its evolution, find case number one, discover the unlikely conditions that have given birth to the monster. The dead become anonymous piles set alongside trenches, as the faces of those who literally gave birth to the virus – its mother and father – are revealed.

Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), a successful businesswoman, globe trots on behalf of her company. During a stay-over in Tokyo, she picks up the virus in a casino and incubates it as she plans an infidelity with an old flame during a flight layover. This is the moral environment of the virus’ birth and gambling is a central theme throughout the film. A conspiracy theorist turned profiteer, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), bets that the markets will remain after the epidemic; one of the key doctors searching for an antivirus, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), bets that he can save the one person most important to him; Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) bets her life that she has created a working immunization.

In a sense, these characters are betting against death itself and they will inevitably lose that wager. This virus might be contained, but death cannot be prevented, and even if they destroy this strain another one is bound to appear. Like Beth’s infidelity, the virus is not simply an outcome attached to random events. Given enough bats, bananas and pigs, another virus is bound to be born. In this way, there is no game to gambling at all because there is no way out of playing and eventually you will lose.

There’s a natural law to gambling here that creates an endless string of clichés that appear novel but are, in fact, just the logical extension of a machine. If rations run out, people will riot in the streets. If there isn’t enough of the vaccine to go around, people with power will cheat and steal to get theirs. Make no mistake, this is a fine movie in many respects, but it is also bloodless, predictable and rehearsed. We have tried on this scenario so often that it’s as formulaic to us now as daytime soap operas.

In the end I can only recommend the film to those who have fetishized disaster, folks who need to be shown what they have imagined thousands, maybe millions of times. Those people have made the idea of collapse into a sort of pornography that replays itself over and over again, but can never tire itself out. They are a lost people and this fatalistic, ritualistic film will make them feel special even as it makes them feel doomed.

The rest of us should just continue to wash our hands and sneeze into our elbows.


 

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