Remember all the panic and fear about the possibility of a bird flu pandemic a few years ago? Now take that fear and double it, triple it — no, that’s not enough — increase it by a power of ten. Now, maybe, just maybe, you can start to appreciate what might happen if the real thing hits and the worst case isn’t just a scenario.
Or, if that’s too disturbing, you could just go see Contagion or watch Outbreak.
In the mid-’90s, Outbreak was the movie that won a rush-to-film game of chicken after the publication of the book The Hot Zone that had everybody freaking out about how the microbes could inherit the Earth by taking down humankind. It took the sheer paranoia of that scare and tried to amp it up with personal story lines, evil government conspiracies and chases. This year Contagion takes another path, turning its actors into cameo appearances in what looks like a documentary as much as anything.
We’re going to get to them in a minute. Or actually in one minute and 17 seconds. You need to watch this SmashUp! we’ve edited together. Whoever said that a global pandemic is no laughing matter has obviously not seen this yet:
Contagion -vs- Outbreak “Microbes from Hell”
Okay, then, we’ve had our laugh, so let’s get serious. And, believe me, Contagion is as serious as a life-changing, body-count-piling global pandemic — which is to say that it’s better to read about the last one from 1918 than it would be to live through one today. It’s a cautionary tale told as a thriller by director Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns.
It starts with a nasty cough over black and before you can say influenza, poor Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) barely has time to get drunk in a Hong Kong casino and screw her old boyfriend on the way back home before she’s deathly ill. It’s no secret that she dies because of the trailers out there, but she dies very quickly in the film which lets you know that the filmmakers aren’t messing around here.
The film keeps lots and lots of balls in the air as it winds relentlessly through the days and weeks and months ahead as the infection topples one institution after another. We have the conspiratorial blogger (Jude Law), the overwhelmed head of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, who desperately need to lose weight now that he’s back in features), a World Health Organization investigator (Marion Cotillard) and the brilliant laboratory vaccine genius (Jennifer Ehle).
I’ve written on this site before about my own experience writing Hallmark’s four-hour miniseries, Pandemic and much of what happens is very familiar to me. The attempt to quarantine an entire American city, the looting and other criminal behavior, the hoarding and empty store shelves, the fear of airports and on and on. This all proceeds like clockwork and, the truth is, when the next real pandemic hits, these are the predictable marks that we’ll check off with regularity. It’s their very predictability that makes the film scary.
The Defending Champion
Outbreak, as directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool, opens big and nasty, some 30 years before the film’s present day, in an African village that gets incinerated with a firebomb to prevent the spread of a deadly virus. Right away, you know the stakes are life and death — not from some tiny virus necessarily, but from the weapons of man.
In the present, Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and Dr. Robby Keough (Rene Russo) are a couple of high-level disease fighters who have just gotten divorced. He’s in the Army, she’s in the CDC. And there’s a monkey being smuggled into the United States and, guess what, he’s got that same nasty virus the Army thought it had immolated three decades earlier.
The virus spreads, but for economy and story focus it all seems to come down to a small California town that sinks fast under the weight of the transmission. While we see the infection on its rampage, we also get a glimpse of that same deep government conspiracy that burns African villages down without a second thought.
Did we mention the California town? Does history repeat itself? Do you see where this is going?
Contagion trusts its restraint while Outbreak tosses it aside in favor of excess. Depending on how you like your movies served up, your enjoyment could break one way or another on this fact alone. While Soderbergh’s film just trails to its inevitable close, it does have the ring of truth while, in contrast, Petersen’s film builds and builds to an aerial chase with unbelievable stakes that feels completely phony. I like my films to be leaner, meaner and truer.
Still, Contagion is a surprisingly bloodless thriller, very short and spare to a fault in its character development. This is by design. On the other hand, Outbreak is all about making the medical and military decisions come down to how you see its characters. There are flaws in both approaches, and certainly the characters in Outbreak are a little trite, but overall, it wins on this front.
This is a clear difference between the films. Contagion embraces wholeheartedly its ensemble Mobius strip of intersecting stories, while Outbreak keeps trying to drill down deeper to justify its big ticket actors like Hoffman and Freeman. Contagion has big actors, too, but you get the sense that Matt Damon and Elliott Gould, for example, came aboard because they had so much fun making the Oceans movies together. I did particularly enjoy seeing J.T. Walsh in Outbreak, given that he was starring in my NBC Dark Skies series at the time the film came out, but his performance as hard-ass military menace was only one step short of Dr. Strangelove‘s Gen. Buck Turgidson. Points to Contagion on acting.
Remember that Outbreak was made in the heyday of government conspiracy plots and nobody really blinked at the thought that the U.S. government would incinerate a town to stop a virus. Maybe such films have prepared us for people who think the same government would blow up the World Trade Center on 9/11, I don’t know, I hope not. The problem with the earlier film’s thinking, though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way to get people involved in the film. A mutating live virus that kills within hours and passes through human touch and airborne transmission is plenty. Contagion trusts that it has enough with its microbe from hell.
Contagion is not Soderbergh’s best work in the ensemble genre. If we had Smacked it up against Traffic, it would surely have lost the fight. That earlier film of his had it all — process, stakes and character.
Contagion doesn’t win because it is made of championship material. It wins because its opponent, Outbreak, is a bum fighter.
It’s a good film, though, made intelligently, acted nicely and it makes you think, and after a summer of superheroes and robots from space and kid magicians grown up, that’s a good thing. Just one piece of advice: Take some hand gel with you to our winner, Contagion, and don’t share from the same soda straw or popcorn bag or touch the railing on the way out. If Contagion comes to pass, we’re going to be off movie-going in theaters for a while, so do try to enjoy the experience while you can.
You Decide: Is Contagion the Same Movie as Pandemic?
Pandemic – Official Trailer