There have been a lot of scary movies made in the history of film. Perhaps because of the medium’s immersive nature, horror has always been a major element of Hollywood. From Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula to John Carpenter’s Michael Myers to whoever wore the big hat in The Babadook, there has always been a boogeyman out there in cinemas. But what really makes a movie terrifying is not the idea that there is a monster out there to be fought and defeated (and to rise again, but that’s the sequel’s problem), but the idea of human nature being the monster. Matt Damon’s 2011 movie Contagion is one of those kinds of movies. While the movie was a commercial success on release, and well-regarded by critics, it sort of came and went without making much of an impression in popular culture. That is, until the last couple years, when it suddenly became more watched than ever. Now that it is streaming on Netflix USA, it is bound to be more so than ever.
Contagion was directed by Steven Soderbergh, one of the most unpredictable and successful filmmakers to come out of the 1990s. In recent decades, he has worked with Matt Damon multiple times, often pushing the actor into roles outside of his Good Will Hunting mode of a brilliant but troubled loner. Contagion was Damon and Soderbergh’s fifth movie together, after the Ocean’s 11 trilogy of films, followed by the black comedy spy satire The Informant! in which Damon played a mentally unstable whistleblower who is convinced that he is a 007-style spy. While that movie was actually based on real events, Contagion oddly predicted real world events that were not yet to happen.
Simply put, Contagion is terrifying because it so accurately reflects how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world. Contagion is a world-spanning movie that follows the spread of a deadly airborne virus, the desperate development of a vaccine to combat it, and the myriad conspiracy theories that rise up in an atmosphere of terrible uncertainty. While it was released years before the ongoing pandemic, real life has imitated the art of Contagion so accurately that it is scarier than any slasher could be. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who had written The Bourne Ultimatum and The Informant! starring Matt Damon previously) envisioned the movie as a kind of thriller in which the danger was a virus. He consulted with real life epidemiologists and representatives of the World Health Organization, who eventually impressed on him that the chances of a global viral pandemic were not just likely, they were certain. With that in mind, Burns set out to write a movie in which realism and scientific research were the goal.
And between Burns and Soderbergh, they succeeded wildly. Contagion has a wonderful ensemble cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, and Laurence Fishbourne as medical personnel, Jude Law as a messianic conspiracy theorist, and Matt Damon as the everyman representation of the world. As befitting a movie that posits a situation that affects the entire world (and has come to in the real world), Contagion is not a movie about a single person. Damon is not a hero in the movie, who has remarkable skill or information. The epidemiologists played by Cotillard and Winslet are not heroes, even they work heroically. Maybe the only person who considers themselves a hero is Law’s character, who is more certain than anyone else that people need to hear his unhinged ideas more than they need to be alive.
Contagion takes place all over the world, with the linked-but-separate style Steven Soderbergh developed in his movie Traffic being evident here. Matt Damon’s character is in Minneapolis, while Gwyneth Paltrow’s Patient Zero arrives in Chicago from Hong Kong. The movie flashes from China to Macau to Atlanta, because in a horrifying scenario like the one it outlines, there is no center of the danger. It takes a filmmaker of Soderbergh’s caliber to make something so dizzying at all coherent, but fortunately, he was up to it.
Contagion grossed nearly double its budget, fitting given it was heavily promoted to star Matt Damon at the height of his stardom. But then it somewhat faded from memory, in the same way that Outbreak, another pandemic movie, did. But in these years of real life pandemic, it suddenly surged up iTunes rentals and began to be reevaluated by critics and researchers. Even though it is a great and terrifying movie that deserves to be watched, it is too bad it had to happen like this.