Contagion is a 2011 American thriller film directed by Steven Soderbergh. Its ensemble cast includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, and Sanaa Lathan. The plot concerns the spread of a virus transmitted by respiratory droplets and fomites, attempts by medical researchers and public health officials to identify and contain the disease, the loss of social order in a pandemic, and the introduction of a vaccine to halt its spread. To follow several interacting plot lines, the film makes use of the multi-narrative "hyperlink cinema" style, popularized in several of Soderbergh's films.

Following their collaboration on The Informant! (2009), Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns discussed a film depicting the rapid spread of a virus, inspired by epidemics such as the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak and the 2009 flu pandemic. Burns consulted with representatives of the World Health Organization as well as medical experts such as W. Ian Lipkin and Larry Brilliant. Principal photography started in Hong Kong in September 2010, and continued in Chicago, Atlanta, London, Geneva, and San Francisco until February 2011.

Contagion premiered at the 68th Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy on September 3, 2011, and was theatrically released on September 9, 2011. Commercially, the film made $136.5 million against its $60 million production budget. Critics praised the film for its narrative and the performances, as did scientists for its accuracy. The film received renewed popularity in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plot[edit | edit source]

Returning from a Hong Kong business trip, Beth Emhoff meets with her former lover during a Chicago layover. Two days later, back home in suburban Minneapolis, Beth's husband, Mitch Emhoff, rushes her to the hospital when she suffers a seizure. She dies of unknown causes. Returning home, Mitch finds that his stepson, Clark, has also died. Mitch is isolated but found to be naturally immune. After being released, Mitch protectively keeps his teenage daughter, Jory, quarantined at home.

In Atlanta, Department of Homeland Security representatives meet with Dr. Ellis Cheever of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over concerns that the disease may be a bioweapon. Cheever dispatches Dr. Erin Mears, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, to Minneapolis where she traces everyone having had contact with Beth. She negotiates with reluctant local bureaucrats to commit resources for a public health response. Soon after, Mears becomes infected and dies. As the novel virus spreads, several cities are placed under quarantine, causing panic buying, widespread looting, and violence.

At the CDC, Dr. Ally Hextall determines the virus is a combination of genetic material from pig and bat-borne viruses. Research on a cure stalls because scientists are unable to discover a cell culture within which to grow the newly identified MEV-1. Dr. Cheever determines the virus too virulent to be researched at multiple labs and restricts all work to one government site. Dr. Hextall orders University of California researcher Dr. Ian Sussman to destroy his samples. Believing he is close to finding a viable cell culture, Sussman violates Cheever's order and eventually identifies a usable MEV-1 cell culture using fetal bat cells, from which Hextall develops a vaccine. Other scientists determine the virus is spread by respiratory droplets and fomites, with a basic reproduction number of four when the virus mutates; they project that 1 in 12 of the world population will be infected, with a 25–30% mortality rate.

Conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede posts videos about the virus on his blog. In one video, he claims to have cured himself of the virus using a homeopathic cure derived from forsythia. People seeking forsythia overwhelm pharmacies, turning violent when limited supplies run out. During a television interview, Krumwiede discloses that Cheever secretly warned his fiancée to leave Chicago before quarantine was declared. Cheever is informed he will be investigated. Krumwiede, having faked being infected to boost sales of forsythia, is arrested for conspiracy and securities fraud.

Using an attenuated virus, Hextall identifies a potential vaccine. To expedite the vaccine development, Hextall bypasses the informed consent test subject process. She instead inoculates herself with the experimental vaccine, then visits her infected father. She does not contract MEV-1 and the vaccine is declared a success. The CDC awards vaccinations by lottery based on birthdates. By this time, the death toll has reached 2.5 million in the U.S. and 26 million worldwide.

Earlier in Hong Kong, World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes and public health officials comb through security video tapes of Beth's contacts in a Macau casino and identify her as the index case. Government official Sun Feng kidnaps Orantes as leverage to obtain MEV-1 vaccine doses for his village, holding her for months. WHO officials provide the village with earliest vaccines and Orantes is released. When she learns the vaccines were placebos, she goes to warn the village.

In a flashback to the spillover event, a bulldozer razes palm trees while clearing a rainforest in China, disturbing some bats' natural habitat. One bat finds shelter in a pig farm and drops an infected piece of banana consumed by a pig. The pig is slaughtered and is prepared by a chef in a Macau casino, who transmits the virus to Beth via a handshake.

Cast[edit | edit source]

Production[edit | edit source]

Conception and writing[edit | edit source]

Concerted efforts to devise Contagion coincided with Burns' collaboration with Soderbergh in The Informant! (2009). The duo had initially planned to create a biographical film on Leni Riefenstahl, a trailblazer in German cinema during the 1930s and a figure in the rise of the Nazi Party. Soderbergh later contacted Burns to cancel the project, as he thought that a film about Riefenstahl would struggle to attract an audience. Intrigued with the field of transmission, Burns suggested that they instead create a film that centered on a pandemic situation—"an interesting thriller version of a pandemic movie". His main objective was to construct a medical thriller that "really felt like what could happen".

Burns consulted with Lawrence "Larry" Brilliant, renowned for his work in eradicating smallpox, to develop an accurate perception of a pandemic event. He had seen one of Brilliant's TED presentations, which he was fascinated by, and realized that "the point of view of people within that field isn't 'If this is going to happen', it's 'When is this going to happen?'" Brilliant introduced Burns to another specialist, W. Ian Lipkin. With the aid of these physicians, the producers were able to obtain additional perspectives from representatives of the World Health Organization. Burns also met with the author of The Coming Plague, Laurie Garrett. Her 1995 book helped Burns consider a variety of potential plots for the film. He wanted to feature an official from the CDC, and ultimately decided to use an epidemiologist, since that role requires interacting with people while tracking the disease.

Although he had done research on pandemics six months prior to the 2009 flu pandemic, the outbreak was "really helpful" to his studies, because it provided a glimpse of the societal apparatus following the onset stages of a pandemic. To him, it was not solely the virus itself that one had to be concerned about, but how society handles the situation. "I saw them come to life", Burns said, "and I saw issues about, 'Well, do you close the schools and if you close the schools, then who stays home with the kids? And will everyone keep their kids at home?' Things happening online, which is where the Jude Law character came from, that there's going to be information that comes out online where people want to be ahead of the curve, so some people will write things about anti-virals or different treatment protocols, and so there's always going to be an information and that information also has sort of a viral pulse."

Filming[edit | edit source]

In conjunction with overseeing the directing process, Soderbergh functioned as a cinematographer for Contagion. The film was wholly shot using Red Digital Cinema's RED One MX digital camera, which has a 4.5K image resolution. Since he hoped for the premise to be authentic and "as realistic as possible", Soderbergh opted not to film in the studio. "There's, to me, nothing more satisfying occasionally than making someplace look like someplace else on film and having nobody know the difference." For choosing cities, Soderbergh felt that they couldn't "go anywhere where one of our characters hasn't been", since he wanted to portray an "epic", yet "intimate" scenario. He explained,

We can't cut to a city or a group of extras that we've never been to that we don’t know personally. That was our rule. And that’s a pretty significant rule to adhere to in a movie in which you're trying to give a sense of something that’s happening on a large scale, but we felt that all of the elements that we had issues with prior, when we see any kind of disaster film, we're centered around that idea.

Principal photography started in Hong Kong in September 2010, and continued for approximately two weeks. Soderbergh was originally hoping to also film in mainland China, though Moviefone journalist David Ehrlich believed that permission from the Chinese government was unlikely to be forthcoming. Although producers also intended to establish a filming location in one of the many casinos in Macau, the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour was used instead for the casino setting, as filming within the vicinity of a gambling establishment is prohibited by law. To move the equipment for the casino scenes to the on-the-water location, producers hired a number of locals to carry out the task, as they were accustomed to "using sampans like trucks". Additional locations included the Hong Kong International Airport, InterContinental Hong Kong, and the Princess Margaret Hospital.

Principal photography relocated in the following month to Chicago, Illinois, which served as the nexus for production. Much of the cityscape and its surrounding suburbs were used to emulate Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Atlanta, Georgia, in addition to serving as backdrop for Chicago itself. Since principal photography occurred during the winter months, snowfall was a prerequisite in simulating a "persistent coldness" that encompassed "a hypersensitive kind of glare". Within the city limits, filming locations were installed at the Shedd Aquarium, O'Hare International Airport, and the Midway Airport. Arguably the largest sets were at the General Jones Armory, which was converted into an infirmary, and a major location shoot occurred in Waukegan, where a portion of the Amstutz Expressway was used to simulate the Dan Ryan Expressway. Production also took place at Sherman Hospital in Elgin and Central Elementary School in Wilmette, and also in Downtown Western Springs, where the grocery store scene was filmed.

Filming moved once again in January 2011 to the Druid Hills quadrant of Atlanta, which contains the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The restricted nature of the CDC campus meant that producers were only allowed to shoot exterior scenes of the area, as well as within the parking garage and reception area for the CDC's museum onsite. Principal photography then proceeded into Atlanta's central business district and Decatur, before advancing to London, Geneva, and lastly San Francisco, California, in the ensuing month. The San Francisco Film Commission charged filmmakers $300 per day for production within the city limits. In the North Beach and Potrero Hill sections of the city, production designer Howard Cummings scattered trash and discarded clothing on the ground to depict the rapid decline of civilization. For the Civic Center set, over 2,000 extras were sought for in background roles; actors who were a part of the Screen Actors Guild were paid $139 per day, while nonunion workers received $64 per day for their work. Other filming locations were established at Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, and Candlestick Park; it cost $60,000 to rent the football stadium for six days. Genentech Hall at the University of California, San Francisco Mission Bay campus was used for filming also, renamed Mendel Hall for the occasion.

Soundtrack[edit | edit source]

Cliff Martinez composed the film's soundtrack, which was his first big-screen score for Soderbergh since Solaris in 2002. Given that the pacing of the music was one of Soderbergh's biggest concerns, Martinez needed to maintain a brisk pace throughout the soundtrack, while also conveying fear and hope within the music. "I tried to create the sound of anxiety. And at key, strategic moments I tried to use the music to conjure up the sense of tragedy and loss." Martinez incorporated orchestral elements, and fused them with the predominantly electronic sounds of the score. He noted that the "sound palette for Contagion came by way of combining three very different approaches Steven went through as he was cutting the film." Martinez received a rough cut for the film in October 2010, which contained music that was imbued with elements of The French Connection (1971) and Marathon Man (1976). He "loved" those two soundtracks, and composed a few pieces in their style. A few months later, he acquired a new cut, which included music influenced by German electronic group Tangerine Dream. Toward the end, Soderbergh changed again and used contemporary soundtrack music that was "more energetic and more rhythmic". Ultimately, Martinez used aspects of all three approaches: "I reasoned that combining them would not only be effective but would give the score a style all its own." The score was released by WaterTower Music in September 2011.

Themes and analysis[edit | edit source]

Steven Soderbergh was motivated to make an "ultra-realistic" film about the public health and scientific response to a pandemic. The film's "hyperlink style" (often quickly moving back and forth from geographically distant places and persons) emphasizes both the historically new perils of contemporary networked globalization and timeless qualities of the human condition (recalling famous literary treatments of epidemics, such as Albert Camus' The Plague). The movie touches on a variety of themes, including the factors which drive mass panic and collapse of social order, the scientific process for characterizing and containing a novel pathogen, balancing personal motives against professional responsibilities and ethics in the face of an existential threat, the limitations and consequences of public health responses, and the pervasiveness of interpersonal connections which can serve as vectors to spread disease. Soderbergh acknowledged the salience of these post-apocalyptic themes is heightened by reactions to the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. The movie was intended to realistically convey the "intense" and "unnerving" social and scientific reactions to a pandemic. The real-life epidemics such as the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak and the 2009 flu pandemic have been inspirations and influences in the film. The chain of contagion involving bats and pigs is reminiscent of the trail of the Nipah virus (which infects cells in the respiratory and nervous systems, the same cells as the virus in the movie) that originated in Malaysia in 1997, which similarly involved the disturbance of a bat colony by deforestation.

The film presents examples of crowd psychology and collective behavior which can lead to mass hysteria and the loss of social order. The bafflement, outrage, and helplessness associated with the lack of information, combined with new media such as blogs, allow conspiracy theorists like Krumwiede to spread disinformation and fear, which become dangerous contagions themselves. Dr. Cheever must balance the need for full disclosure but avoid a panic and allow the time to characterize and respond to an unknown virus. The movie indirectly critiques the greed, selfishness, and hypocrisy of isolated acts in contemporary culture and the unintended consequences they can have in the context of a pandemic. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends social distancing by forcibly isolating the healthy to limit the spread of the disease, which stands in stark opposition to contemporary demands for social networking. Responding to the pandemic presents a paradox, as the contagiousness and lethality of the virus instills deep distrust of others but surviving and limiting the spread of the disease also requires individuals to work together.

Against this existential threat and fraying social order, the film also explores how individual characters bend or break existing rules for both selfish and selfless reasons. Dr. Hextall violates protocols by testing a potential vaccine on herself, Dr. Sussman continues experiments on a cell line despite orders to destroy his samples, Dr. Cheever notifies his fiancée to leave the city before a public quarantine is imposed, Sun Feng kidnaps Dr. Orantes to secure vaccine supplies for his village, Dr. Mears continues her containment work despite contracting the virus, and Krumwiede is paid to use his blog to peddle snake oil cures so as to drive demand and profit for investors in alternative medicine. Soderbergh repeatedly uses the cinematographic style of lingering and focusing on the items and objects which are touched by the infected and become vectors (fomites) to infect other people. These objects link characters together and reinforce the multi-narrative hyperlink cinema style which Soderbergh developed in Traffic (2000) and Syriana (2005), which he produced.

The story also highlights examples of political cronyism (a plane to evacuate Dr. Mears from Minneapolis is instead diverted to evacuate a congressman), platitudes and rigid thinking (public health officials consider postponing the closing of shopping malls until after the Thanksgiving shopping season), federal responders trying to navigate 50 separate state-level public health policies, and the heroism of Federal bureaucrats. Soderbergh does not use type-cast pharmaceutical executives or politicians as villains, but instead portrays bloggers such as Krumwiede in a negative light. Social media play a role in Krumwiede's accusations against Dr. Cheever and in Emhoff's daughter's attempts to carry on a relationship with her boyfriend through text messaging. Other responses in the movie, such as Emhoff's appropriating a shotgun from a friend's abandoned house to protect his home from looters, imposition of federal quarantines and curfews, the allocation of vaccines by lottery, inadequate federal preparation and responses, and use of bar-coded wristbands to identify the inoculated highlight the complex tensions between freedom and order in responding to a pandemic. Soderbergh uses Emhoff to illustrate the micro-effects of macro-level decisions.

Reception[edit | edit source]

Release and box office[edit | edit source]

Contagion premiered on September 3, 2011, at the 68th Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy, and a wider release followed on September 9. In the United States and Canada, Contagion was shown in 3,222 theaters, of which 254 screenings occurred at IMAX venues. Various American commercial analysts anticipated that the film would have ticket sales of between $20–$25 million during its opening weekend, which it did, grossing $8 million on its first day, and $23.1 million for the entire weekend. Of that total, ten percent ($2.3 million) of the gross came from IMAX screenings. By outgrossing competitor The Help ($8.7M), Contagion became the highest-grossing film of the week. Demographically, the opening audience was evenly divided among gender, according to Warner Bros., while eighty percent of spectators were of the age of 25 and over. Contagion did well the following weekend, generating a $14.5 million box office, but came in second to the re-release of The Lion King (1994). The third week saw the box office drop by forty percent, for a total gross of $8.7 million. By the fourth week, Contagion had dropped to ninth place at the box office with $5 million, and the number of theaters narrowed to 2,744. The film completed its theatrical run on December 15, 2011, at which point its total domestic gross was $75.6 million.

Contagion made its international debut in six foreign markets the same weekend as its American release, including Italy, where it achieved $663,000 from 309 theaters. The first week saw Contagion gross $2.1 million from 553 establishments—a per-theater average of $3,797. Foreign grosses for Contagion would remain relatively stagnant up until the weekend of October 14–16, 2011, when the film expanded into several additional European markets. Out of the $3.9 million that was generated from 1,100 venues during that weekend, nearly 40% of the gross originated from Spain, where the film earned $1.5 million from 325 theaters. With the growing expansion of the film in seven additional markets, the weekend of October 21–23, 2011 saw Contagion take in $9.8 million from 2,505 locations, increasing the international gross to $22.9 million. In the United Kingdom, one of the film's significant international releases, Contagion opened in third place at the box office with $2.3 million from 398 theaters; it subsequently garnered the highest debut gross of a Soderbergh film since Ocean's Thirteen (2007). International grosses for Contagion totaled $60.8 million.

Critical response[edit | edit source]

Contagion has received positive reviews by film commentators. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 85% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 272 reviews, with an average rating of 7.09/10. The website's critics consensus states, "Tense, tightly plotted, and bolstered by a stellar cast, Contagion is an exceptionally smart – and scary – disaster movie." On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 based on the critiques from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 70 based on 38 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B-" on an A+ to F scale.

The Guardian journalist Peter Bradshaw felt that Contagion blended well together as a film, although opined that Soderbergh was somewhat unsuccessful in channeling the fears, frights, and "the massive sense of loss" of "ordinary people". To David Denby of The New Yorker, the "brilliant" film was "serious, precise, frightening," and "emotionally enveloping". Despite applauding Soderbergh for "hopscotching" tidily "between the intimate and international", The Atlantic's Christopher Orr was disappointed with the film's detached and "clinical" disposition, which led him to conclude that Contagion should have gone with a more inflexible rationale, or a lesson "beyond 'wash your hands often and hope you're lucky'." "For all the craft that went into it, Contagion is ultimately beyond good or bad, beyond criticism. It just is," professed The Atlantic writer. Describing it as a "smart" and "spooky" installment, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Soderbergh doesn't milk your tears as things fall apart, but a passion that can feel like cold rage is inscribed in his images of men and women isolated in the frame, in the blurred point of view of the dying and in the insistent stillness of a visual style that seems like an exhortation to look." In regards to the story, Salon columnist Andrew O'Hehir avouched that the "crisp" and succinct narrative matched up to the "beautifully composed" visuals of the film. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed that Soderbergh and Burns effectively created anxiety in the "shrewd" and "unsensationalistic" film without becoming exaggerated, a sentiment echoed by Jeannette Catsoulis of NPR, who insisted that the duo "weave multiple characters into a narrative that's complex without being confusing, and intelligent without being baffling". Writing for The Village Voice, Karina Longworth thought that Contagion reflected the "self-consciousness" and "experimentation" of some of Soderbergh's previous efforts, such as the Ocean's trilogy and The Girlfriend Experience (2009).

The performances of multiple cast members were frequently mentioned in the reviews. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post asserted that Ehle was "outstanding", a view that was analogous to that of The Boston Globe journalist Wesley Morris, who praised not only Ehle's performance, but the work of the "undercard" such as Cranston, Gould, and Colantoni, among others. Similarly, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Ehle the "best in show". As Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan summed up, "Two-time Tony-winning actress Jennifer Ehle comes close to stealing the picture with this quietly yet quirkily empathetic performance." With regard to Law, The Philadelphia Inquirer's Steven Rea stated that the actor portrayed the character with a "nutty" confidence; Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle agreed with Rea's thoughts. Damon provided the film's "relatable heart", according to Forrest Wickman of Slate, who concluded that even with her controlled performance, Winslet "lives up to her head-of-the-class reputation even in an unusually small role".

The character development of multiple characters produced varying response from critics. Contrary to Mitch's stance as the main protagonist, Michael O'Sullivan of The Washington Post felt that Contagion "treats him with an oddly clinical detachment". In particular Law's character, Alan Krumwiede, attracted commentary from Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote, "The blogger subplot doesn't interact clearly with the main story lines and functions mostly as an alarming but vague distraction."

Scientific response[edit | edit source]

Ferris Jabr of New Scientist approved of Contagion for accurately portraying the "successes and frustrations" of science. Jabr cites story elements such as "the fact that before researchers can study a virus, they need to figure out how to grow it in cell cultures in the lab, without the virus destroying all the cells" as examples of accurate depictions of science. Carl Zimmer, a science writer, praised the film, stating, "It shows how reconstructing the course of an outbreak can provide crucial clues, such as how many people an infected person can give a virus to, how many of them get sick, and how many of them die." He also describes a conversation with the film's scientific consultant, W. Ian Lipkin, in which Lipkin defended the rapid generation of a vaccine in the film. Zimmer wrote that "Lipkin and his colleagues are now capable of figuring out how to trigger immune reactions to exotic viruses from animals in a matter of weeks, not months. And once they've created a vaccine, they don't have to use Eisenhower-era technology to manufacture it in bulk." Paul Offit, a pediatrician and vaccination expert, stated that "typically when movies take on science, they tend to sacrifice the science in favor of drama. That wasn't true here." Offit appreciated the film's usage of concepts such as R0 and fomites, as well as the fictional strain's origins, which was based on the Nipah virus.

Home media[edit | edit source]

Contagion was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on January 3, 2012, and in the United Kingdom on March 5, 2012. In its first week of release, the film topped the DVD chart with 411,000 units sold for $6.16 million. That same week it sold 274,000 Blu-ray copies for $4.93 million, topping that chart as well. DVD sales dropped during the second week of release, with 193,000 units sold for $2.89 million. As of early July 2012, Contagion had sold 802,535 copies in DVD, for $12.01 million in revenue.

Renewed popularity[edit | edit source]

In 2020, the film received renewed popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which bears some resemblance to the pandemic depicted in the film. By March 2020, Contagion was the seventh most popular film on iTunes, listed as the number two catalog title on Warner Bros. compared to its number 270 rank the past December 2019, and had average daily visits on piracy websites increase by 5,609 percent in January 2020 compared to the previous month. HBO Now also reported that Contagion had been the most viewed film for two weeks straight.

As the film continued to regain popularity, the cast reunited through an infomercial PSA in partnership with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in March 2020. Regarding its resurgence in 2020, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns responded in an interview with The Washington Post saying, "It is sad, and it is frustrating. Sad because so many people are dying and getting sick. Frustrating because people still don’t seem to grasp the situation we are now in and how it could have been avoided by properly funding the science around all of this. It is also surreal to me that people from all over the world write to me asking how I knew it would involve a bat or how I knew the term "social distancing." I didn’t have a crystal ball — I had access to great expertise. So, if people find the movie to be accurate, it should give them confidence in the public health experts who are out there right now trying to guide us."

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