A Bio-Horror Movie for a Post-9/11 World

As a general rule, I love a bio-horror movie, the kind when a killer infectious disease comes on like a storm and levels almost the entire human race. Usually the deadly epidemic is a result of some insidious government-meets-big-pharma conspiracy. There are big bad guys sitting in the Pentagon and big bad guys sitting in board rooms. The Pentagon guys and the board room guys conspire together to unleash their politically corrupt plague upon the unsuspecting masses.

The bio-horror genre provides the ultimate in cinematic paranoia. Human beings are under attack by an invisible threat – disease. You can’t even see the monster, but it’s a real killer. The insidious microorganisms which are created and deployed by aforementioned corporate and government bad guys are set free and next thing you know practically the whole world is dead. In the end, it is always clear that the bad guys (e.g. government and corporate powers) are the real disease.

At the center of all of this there is usually one desperate (and massively fucked over) character who unveils the secret conspiracy and tries to expose the corruption amidst a world populated by piles of corpses and spooky empty buildings. In other words, the bio-horror movie is traditionally a very overt political allegory, and one that has been popular during times of economic instability and political unrest.

I went to Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagion expecting all of these generic elements to be delivered. After all, isn’t the time perfectly ripe for a bio-horror movie? Wars, political and economic corruption, paranoia, and mass global environmental and economic devastation are the order of the day. What better way to depict the political-economic horror of the 21st century than a movie about a killer disease?

I sat down at my seat in the theater and was prepared for the bleak and conspiratorial destruction of the human race. Instead, what I got was a cool, sprawling movie that left me feeling empty and removed. I walked out of the theater afterwards and thought, “What happened to the paranoia? Where are the piles of dead bodies? And where the hell is the bad guy?”

Minimally, there should be at least one corporate bad guy or one government bad guy, but Soderbergh’s film has neither.  Because of all the ways in which he breaks with the conventions of the genre, at first I thought the movie wasn’t delivering the goods. But after I started thinking about it, I realized that Contagion is a film of the time specifically because it doesn’t play by the rules.

Contagion takes the invisible nature of bio-horror to the next level. Lacking a center, the movie delivers its story mostly through data and numbers, resists localization and identification by killing off one of its main characters at the beginning, and sprawls all over the world. Contagion’s rapid fire cuts between multiple characters, its cool mediated delivery of the impact of the disease via data, and its storyline that moves rapidly back and forth between the United States and China, while affecting the entire world, mirror the current state of the economy under global capitalism much more than a movie with a fixed center.

In a world where global capitalism and industrialization are the disease and the entire political economy of the world is infected, there is no center. The disease is delivered by the insidious forces of global trade, and those forces move as rapidly as the deadly numbers that multiply in this film.

The movie opens with a black screen and the sound of a cough and then cuts to a close-up of Gwyneth Paltrow sitting in the airport not looking too glamorous.  A sickly sheen to her skin, circles under her eyes and a red runny nose, she is not the picture of Hollywood beauty. It gets worse. Soon we discover that Ms. Paltrow’s character Beth Emhoff is not just sick, but that 1) she’s an adulteress who’s been having sex with her boyfriend in a hotel (and giving him her disease); 2) she’s bringing the disease home to infect her family (and the world); 3) she’s been in China breaking ground for a new factory for the mining and manufacturing conglomerate she works for (spreading the disease of global capitalism); and 4) she’s going to end up getting even uglier as she lies on the floor of her home in convulsions and foaming at the mouth.

Within fifteen minutes of the film’s opening, one of its central stars ends up dead and on the autopsy table. In the most gruesome scene in the movie, Gywneth Paltrow’s skull is sliced open with a saw, and her scalp is lifted and flapped over her face. She has been uglified and killed, and her identity has been obliterated by her inverted flesh. That is the extent of the gruesome in the movie, but it is a gruesome that leads directly to the rest of the film which breaks with generic convention (turning the genre inside-out just like Paltrow’s face) and takes an almost clinical, detached look at the outcome of the epidemic to which Beth’s actions lead. There are a couple of scenes with foaming mouths and dead faces, but other than that, the gruesome stops with Beth’s scalp.

Not only does Beth (Paltrow) die in the first fifteen minutes, but she also kills her son with her infection and leaves her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) a widow. Mitch is left to fend for himself and his daughter in the contagious world of the disease Beth left behind. Mitch would be the most likely character to play the role described above – the whistle blower out to unveil the conspiracy behind his wife’s death. But instead, Matt Daemon’s Mitch is about as affectless as the myriad of glass surfaces that his face is reflected in throughout the movie. He doesn’t cry. He doesn’t get angry. He shows no emotion. Rather than being out in the world fighting the bad guys, he insulates himself and his daughter Jory from the world by keeping them locked in their house (a kind of Night of the Living Dead scenario without the drama of invading zombies or exploding gas pumps).  In fact, Contagion is much like a zombie movie without zombies.

You’d think that the battle of a father and daughter for survival in a world being rapidly attacked by an infectious disease could provide a vehicle for emotional delivery, but Jory is as blank as her father. Anna Jacoby-Heron’s white and wide-eyed face is as animated as the text on her iPhone via which the majority of her dialog is delivered. Jory and Mitch work their way through the movie as if they are performing the simple task of survival without emotional excess or drama, almost as if they are the zombies fighting off the non-zombies outside.

In the one scene when Mitch does show emotion and cry, the film’s attention is focused more on the photos in Beth’s digital camera than it is on Mitch’s grief. He finds her camera and flips through the photos of her last days. The digital images of Beth’s activities seem to possess more life than more than the tears of her husband. Also, the photos give us some clues – and life – to the narrative movie (the origin of the disease) whereas Mitch just gives us his matter-of-fact response.

Not only does Mitch’s lack of emotion resist allowing us to identify with him, but the movie’s frenetic pace moves so rapidly between characters and locations that it refuses to allow our sympathies to rest with Mitch for any duration. But we’re not supposed to feel for Mitch or feel for any single character. We’re supposed to think about their situation and respond with rational thought rather than irrational emotion.

Contagion is ultimately a movie that’s about destabilizing the genre and taking the inflated emotionalism out of a culture that spreads paranoia. Sure, there is an infectious disease killing people, but what we witness in the movie is people dealing with the work of disease management more than some hyper-paranoid inflated vision of the “terror.” This is not a movie about emotion and identification, but a movie about quietly resisting emotionalism and showing how things “are” in an imagined narrative based on real data.

In a way, once the disease hits, Contagion becomes a work narrative and is about people performing the job of disease management. Even though he’s unemployed and immune, surviving the disease becomes Mitch’s job, and that’s exactly how he approaches it, as if he is repairing a car or tackling a problem of statistics. He takes the gun from his dead neighbor’s house because it’s useful. He carries around hand sanitizer for Jory because it’s a tool for survival. Everything he does is for a purpose.

No, there are no big evil government guys in the movie, but there are bureaucrats doing their job because it is their job to do. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) does his job working for Center for Disease Control (CDC) without hyperbole or dishonest intent. Even when he leaks information to his fiancé so she has a better chance for survival, it’s done without corruption but because it’s the rational thing to do – try to save your loved ones.  Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) does her job as a First Responder working for Cheever in disease management up to the moment when she contracts the disease herself and dies. Then you have the government employed Dr. Hextall (in a fantastic performance by Jennifer Ehle) doing her job of systematically developing a vaccine with the help of the academic researcher Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould).

In the meanwhile, over in China there’s Dr. Orantes of the World Health Organization trying to figure out the disease (until she is kidnapped by the Chinese), and even the Chinese people who kidnap her are doing their job of trying to get the vaccine to save the survivors in their village. There’s no great drama in the kidnapping. It happens with systematic order and quiet logic. None of these workers are villainized. Even the military representation – Admiral Haggerty – is just a guy doing his job and looking forward to his work day coming to an end.

In between all these main characters, there are other layers of labor revealed in the film. The janitor who works in Cheever’s building is shown with equal representation and respect to Cheever. He’s no different than any of the doctors despite the economic difference. As the narrative unfolds, references to labor make quiet appearances. The morticians’ union, the nurses’ union, and the teamsters are all mentioned as somehow resisting the disease. The morticians won’t accept dead bodies; nurses won’t admit the sick, and teamsters stop distribution all because they don’t want to be put at risk of infection. That’s the rational thing to do, but allegorically the infection of global capitalism is highly fatal to labor unions, so it’s no wonder that they would resist its spread. There is rationale and self-preservation behind this resistance, and the movie makes that clear.

While  all these people are doing their jobs and the movie is cutting back and forth between their efforts, the blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law with a crooked tooth) becomes the voice of paranoia. On his blog, he claims that the government and big pharma are plotting a big conspiracy. He stokes the fires of paranoia by pointing the finger and inflating the truth behind the disease. Krumwiede is the voice of anti-government in Contagion. But rather than being the guy from the old bio-horror movies who reveals that the government is a fraud, the film shows that Krumwiede himself is the fraud. His anti-science, anti-government stance is the voice of paranoia created to profit from paranoia. In other words, despite the fact that he looks like a progressive muckraker, Krumwiede might as well be the voice of the Tea Party, the voice of paranoid dissent that he deploys for his own self-interest. While the government workers are trying to manage the disease and vaccinate people, Krumwiede makes four million dollars selling bogus new age medicine.

Krumwiede’s Crusader for Truth is a liar, and this becomes another inversion of the genre. But again, the old generic model doesn’t work for today’s culture. This is a 21stcentury bio-horror movie, and in this day it is the Michelle Bachmanns and Rick Perry of the world that are a threat, not the regular working stiffs employed in the public sector. Those civil servants are losing their jobs to the plague of free trade while the Tea Party stands up and spouts its paranoid anti-science, anti-government and deregulation propaganda.

While this makes Contagion sound like a pro-government movie, it’s really more of a pro-worker movie. The characters are not high level big wigs from the Federal Triangle or the Pentagon. They’re just people doing their jobs, the kind of jobs, working for the State, that provide good employment with good benefits (an endangered species in the global economy). These are the people who are employed by the programs attacked by the Right Wing, the people who will lose their jobs if the Tea Party gets its way.

What does this all have to do with the disease in the film? Soderbergh does an amazing job of having the disease work on two different levels. On one hand, he presents it with clear scientific logic and rationale, and the movie functions as a kind of anti-paranoia pro-science movie. On the other, Soderbergh very quietly weaves details into the narrative so the disease can also be read allegorically as the infectious disease of global capital.

As I mentioned earlier, there are very few people we see foaming at the mouth and no scenes of mass carnage. For a movie that moves as rapidly as Contagion, the film is exceptionally restrained in its delivery. Rather than focusing on the people infected by the disease, the movie traces the spread of the epidemic through information, media, numbers and objects. The transmission of the contagion is first witnessed in a credit card transaction (also to be read allegorically) and then follows the spread of the disease through a series of objects – drinking glasses, cell phones, and hand rails. It is small moments that deliver the presence of the disease rather than big bombastic moments of terror.

In one scene a small red spot under Beth’s nose reveals that she is infected. In another, when Dr. Mears coughs out the contagion in a hotel bathroom, the camera subtly focuses on dirty fingerprints on a light switch, an image which is much more effective than actually witnessing a writhing body on the ground. We all touch light switches, and they certainly are full of germs. An empty gym shows the impact more than rabid zombies roaming the streets. When FEMA takes over an arena to house the infected, the image of the vast empty building shows the magnitude of the epidemic more than a rioting mob. Even when the sick are seen occupying the arena, they are mostly hidden behind biosafety tents. The one scene with a mass grave is presented with such clinical detachment that the workers handling the bodies could be sanitary workers cleaning up garbage in tidy bags.

As the disease spreads, we are shown its exponential impact through data and numbers. The movie is driven by an electro-techno original soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, but the music’s acceleration operates in perfect syncopation with the numbers that trace the disease’s progression. The spread of the disease is quantified through data and its acceleration tracked in numbers. Whether it’s Dr. Mears explaining the R-0 rate of the transmission, Dr. Sussman showing how the virus binds to genes, or Dr. Hextall explaining probability for survival, the scientific and mathematic rationale behind the movie is notably accurate. Remember, these are people doing their jobs, and their job is to present accurate information. More than anything, the logical rationale of the disease’s progress rather than manufactured paranoia is what pushes the movie through its urgent pace.

All of this distancing works to de-paranoid the epidemic at a time in history when the “disease of the week” (SARS, H1N1, West Nile, etc.) has become a new reason to spread paranoia. If we’re not fighting human terrorists, then we’re fighting biological ones. This is not to say that there isn’t any reason to be paranoid. Looking below the cool surface of the film, the disease that is a threat isn’t the literal virus, but the allegorical one. Viruses aren’t the only things that can be quantified in numbers. Numbers are also what drive the global economy, and the mechanisms of global capital are what both literally and allegorically cause the epidemic in the movie.

Globalization is brilliantly written into the film via the company that Beth works for, AIMM (Aldersson International Mining and Manufacturing). Beth is in China because AIMM is breaking ground for a new factory outside the Guangdong Province. The Guangdong province is home of a huge number of factories where American manufacturers have outsourced labor to produce goods. In the movie, AIMM is located in Minnesota and serves as a barely masked proxy for 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) whose company byline is “Innovative Technology for a Changing World.” Sure, a “changing” world in which a conglomerate like 3M closes many of its manufacturing plants in the U.S. and opens factories all over the planet that exploit labor to line its shareholders’ pockets with profits. (On a side note, in the film AIMM also appears to be located in Michelle Bachmann’s Congressional district.)

At the end of the film, after the disease management workers have done their job, we are presented with an explanation for how this contagion began. The whole chain of events is inaugurated by the destruction of forest land to build a factory in Guangdong, with AIMM’s corporate logo prominently featured on the construction equipment. The ensuing loss of wild habitat displaces a bat, which takes shelter in a barn used for raising pigs. When the presumably ill bat falls to the ground, it comes in contact with a pig. Now the combination of bat and pig genes that makes this virus unique has been achieved.

From there, the only question is how the contagion gets spread to human beings. We see the pig being conveyed from the farm to a restaurant, then onto the apron of its chef. This is where Beth comes in contact with it. As the shots left on her camera reveal, she goes to this restaurant to experience “exotic” Chinese cuisine – we see her eating an unusual dish – and then posed for a photograph with the chef. As the title superimposed on the screen informs us, this encounter represents Day One of the contagion.

So Beth has blood on her hands: literally from the infected pig blood, but also allegorically as part of AIMM’s efforts to build more overseas factories. As the film quietly shows, it’s not just bats that are displaced by the practices of global capitalism. It’s also the people who lose their jobs as a consequence of the search for greater profits. Global capitalism is both an environmental and economic disease. It is the contagion that has caused the current global economic crisis.

In the end, Contagion does have the political ramifications of other bio-horror movies, but they are very much subverted by the rational surface of the film and the distancing of its cinematic devices. I should add that Soderbergh’s impeccable cinematography allows us to see the economic world of the film through his beautifully framed shots of the interiors of buildings and the people who occupy them. Frequently, the people are subordinated to the space they occupy, and the space becomes a stand-in for the acts that are performed in them. The movie is clinically cool looking, and that certainly adds to the emotional distancing of its content.

While at first this emotional distancing threw me for a loop, I now realize that we live in a time when a less alarmist approach to the world is in order. At the end of Contagion, the disease is not the end of the world. In fact, they find a vaccine pretty quickly. Only a few million people die. (I note that the only a few million  phrasing is a result of how the film rationally delivers this data.) People do the best they can. Some live. Some die. Life goes on.

Even the looting scenes in the movie are numbed down and shown as something that just happens at times like this. Krumwiede’s theories prove to be a bunch of poppy-cock. He accuses the government of setting up a hierarchy of who will receive the vaccine, but there is no big conspiracy. The vaccine is distributed by a lottery based on numbers and statistics, just like most everything else in this movie.  Eventually everyone will get the cure. References to the Spanish influenza and Polio further remove paranoia from the film by reminding us that diseases come and diseases go. Life goes on.

Contagion is a bio-horror movie for post 9-11. It is a movie for thinking rather than reacting, and the more I reflect on it, the more I realize how ingeniously Soderbergh integrate so many ideas into one aesthetically cool and theoretically complex movie. Contagion resists paranoia and subverts genre conventions to de-paranoid a paranoid culture. Paranoia has become a virus in this country, and Contagion is a kind of cinematic vaccine. When the Pentagon attempts to attribute the epidemic to terrorist activity, science refutes these paranoid charges. Dr. Cheever responds, “There is no need to weaponize the virus. The animals will do it themselves.” Of course, they’ll do it themselves, as they are forced out of their natural habitat (just like workers are forced out of their habitat) by the mechanisms of global capitalism.

The movie progresses by counting the days of the epidemic. It starts at Day 2 then works its way through the film as the epidemic spreads. In the end, the movie returns to Day 1. A dark quiet jungle fills the frame. We see the bat hanging from a bunch of bananas. And then the tractor with the AIMM logo on the side enters the scene. This is the origin of the disease, the site of a new factory. It’s global capitalism, not terrorists, that is infecting the world.

So in the end, Contagion is true to its generic form. The political and economic allegory is there. It’s just very quiet, like the forces of capitalism are quiet. Still, for all Soderbergh’s cool distancing in the film, I have to admit that when I stepped into the parking lot of the theater and heard someone cough, I winced. Then I looked around me and saw a giant Home Depot and thought of the habitat that was plowed down to build it. Perhaps I am infected after all. Perhaps we all are.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published a book of her art Mapping The Inside Out and is finishing a photo essay book on copper mining towns in Southern Arizona. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.