When COVID-19 took root, you almost knew there would be movies made to cash in on the panic and fear of the pandemic. They came — of course — and the better films to come from that initial period chose to focus on the human element. Isolation, loneliness, that kind of thing. Understandably, most steered clear of tackling a straight-up pandemic story.
But then, Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns already cooked up a chilling ode to the horrors of a killer virus nearly a decade earlier. Prescient and haunting, it was little surprise that people flocked to it once more in the early days of COVID-19.
Contagion arrived on this day in 2011, and at the time, its science-heavy take on the effects of an airborne virus seemed quite fanciful. Even as parts of the world had endured epidemics that generated scary headlines for the countries not truly affected by them, it still felt like a distant possibility.
In Contagion, a woman returns from a business trip to Hong Kong and dies from what appears to be a flu-like infection. Then her young son dies the same day. However, the woman’s husband appears to be immune.
Ensemble Cast Accentuates Contagion’s Paranoia and Fear
Soderbergh makes fantastic and frightening use of his ability to wrangle an ensemble cast in these early moments. The film has Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Elliot Gould among its number. Soderbergh stacks the deck only to pull off a shocking swerve with a big-name actor suffering a relatively swift death. There’s no better way to establish no one is safe from what’s coming. Even being immune doesn’t prevent people from suffering due to the unexpected death of loved ones.
This is our entry point at the start of what will become a pandemic where the airborne virus wreaks havoc. Doctors at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control soon come to realize the extent of the virus’ reach. They scramble against the clock to both identify and find a cure for the virus.
Meanwhile, the rise in cases worldwide causes unrest and panic on a significant scale. As we know all too well, answers just can’t come quickly enough to stop the impact.
Soderbergh dipped into horror in his storied directorial career, most prominently in 2018’s Unsane, and will dip wholly into it for his upcoming film Presence. But the coldly clinical science of Contagion is perhaps the most masterful use of it in his filmography.
Yes, Contagion plays things to the extreme end of the spectrum. However, that’s exactly why it acted as a weird kind of comfort in the early days of our real-life pandemic. The situation is bad, but look at how bad it so easily could be. The parallels between reality and fiction were eerily close at that time.
Unfortunately, life proved stranger than fiction. Reality proved it could come up with its own disturbing twist on how people really act in a pandemic. Could Soderbergh have predicted anti-maskers?