*This review contains spoilers *
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion opens with the sound of coughing and a black screen. It’s an ominous beginning for this smart thriller about a deadly global pandemic.
Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is the first victim. The virus is depicted as its own character. A rapid-fire montage shows how quickly it spreads, with the camera lingering on innocuous things like door handles, credit cards, and drinking glasses.
As the virus claims victims, scientists work desperately to create a vaccination. The movie manages to give a sense of the global effect of the virus, while still bringing in the human element. Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is bewildered at the sudden and dramatic death of his wife. A scientist at the CDC deals with a colleague’s infection and a loved one who lives in a quarantine zone. Logistical details—hospitals running out of body bags and funeral homes refusing to accept infected corpses, the time-consuming nature of testing, producing, and dispensing a vaccination—heighten the desperate situation.
Like many disaster movies, Contagion shows the darker side of human nature in crises. People riot over food and vaccination shortages. An opportunistic blogger tries to cash in by spreading rumors and conspiracy theories. The contagious nature of these rumors—as one scientist notes—spread fear and panic that is just as damaging as the virus. But the movie also portrays those working to stop the virus as hardworking and intelligent people who put forth their best efforts.
Contagion provides a picture of the frailty of human life and the problem of evil. People make mistakes and take advantage of the outbreak to promote their own interests, but there is no one to blame for the outbreak. No individual or group released the virus. No government agency tried to cover it up. This lack of a scapegoat makes the movie both more believable and more frightening. Without ability to ascribe blame or responsibility, how can people make sense of such a devastating event?
Despite the efforts of the world’s best scientists, the virus wipes out a large percentage of the human population. For anyone who does not recognize that God controls and sustains life, this should be absolutely terrifying since it seems all that separates them from death is chance or coincidence. To those who do recognize God’s control of human life, however, the movie serves as a reminder that we are dependent on God’s life-giving power—that He holds every living thing in His hand (Job 12:10).
Salvation in the movie comes when the vaccine is discovered. Perhaps unwittingly, it’s discovered on Christmas Day, the same day we celebrate the ultimate cure for sin and salvation coming to earth.