One thing to keep in mind while you’re watching Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s tense 2011 thriller about a global pandemic that brings U.S. society to the verge of total collapse, is that YOU SHOULD NOT BE WATCHING CONTAGION WHILE AN ACTUAL PANDEMIC IS HAPPENING! WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?
Since news of the coronavirus broke, downloads of Contagion (both legal and illegal) have spiked, which makes sense on some level because viral transmission is now on everyone’s mind (though, hopefully, not on everyone’s lungs). You can purchase the movie on a few streaming platforms, but it’s only available for free on Cinemax, which you almost certainly do not subscribe to, making COVID-19 the best thing to happen to the fourth-tier movie channel since Shannon Tweed.
So you’ve got to make a little bit of an effort to watch Contagion. And you shouldn’t! Not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s a good movie. If you’re at all concerned with the spread of coronavirus, every cough here a jump scare.
Seriously, this is like watching Trainspotting while you’re trying to kick heroin. It’s like watching The Walking Dead while there are actual zombies beating on your door. I’m not saying I imagined I had a fever afterwards and ran out to Target and bought a thermometer, but I’m not exactly not saying that. (Good news: My temperature was 98.5. Bad news: It was their last thermometer.)
“But Contagion takes place in Minnesota!” I hear you saying, all Minnesotanly. And yes, as a “working” “journalist,” the reason I dutifully re-watched the movie in the first place is to extract all the local angles I could. Well, here they are: A man says his bus is at “Lake and Lyndale” at one point, the non-existent “Mondale Elementary School” is evacuated, and the population of Minneapolis is given as 3.3 million, a number it will never reach in Lisa Bender’s wildest dreams. (Someone must have Googled our metro population, though screenwriter Scott Burns, who grew up in Golden Valley and graduated from the U of M, should’ve known better.) As for poor St. Paul, it doesn’t get a single mention.
Anyway Contagion wasn’t even filmed here. It was made in Chicago, so when they set up medical beds in the “Minneapolis Armory,” it’s not our Armory any more than Gwyneth Paltrow, who as patient zero is responsible for even more deaths here than she is as the real-life proprietor of Goop, is an actual flu-ridden Minnesotan.
And they make us look dumb! (We got all indignant about this back in 2011.) Playing the role of the Amity mayor who wants to keep the shark-infested beaches open is some dimwitted Minnesota Department of Health official who whines, “It’s the biggest shopping weekend of the year!” and "Is this coming out of your budget or ours?" when Kate Winslet shows up from the Centers for Disease Control to teach us rubes some sciencin’. (Perhaps the worst part of watching Contagion in 2020 is that it’ll make you nostalgic for a competently managed CDC. Either that or this stupid cap that Jude Law wears.)
I understand how the "gotta do something" theory of preparedness pushes us in strange directions, but Contagion is right now the irrationally-stocking-up-on-toilet-paper of movie choices. If you want to learn about how viruses spread and how they can be contained, read this. Immersing yourself in a full-length movie about the subject, however, is not emotionally wise at this moment. Seriously, just go wash your hands, stop touching your face, stay home, keep six feet apart, and watch Singin’ in the Rain or something.