Contagion’s Thematic Preoccupation With Fear


Contagion is a brooding atmospheric thriller. Instead of terrorists or supernatural beings, the enemy is an enigmatic virus that can be passed along through an innocuous handshake or a martini glass. Not only does this lethal creation invade and kill our bodies, but it also turns humanity against its very self.

Director Steven Soderbergh tells us about the virus by focusing on a handful of characters who each face the threat head on from their own particular vantage point: patient zero, a grieving loved one, the CDC director, a WHO researcher, and an exploitative blogger. Contagion makes the danger all the more palpable making us watch as the virus destroys, not just cities, but individual victims one by one.

The film’s tagline is “Nothing spreads like fear,” an accurate portrayal of its thematic aspirations. And it does so expertly by painting an aura of fear across each character and setting.

Ultimately the core message of the film is a pessimistic one, the disease is defeated at great personal cost and with no final explanation for the disease itself. Death wins because death always wins. This negative story assessment is given in three main ideas.

Fear Is More Powerful Than Hope

The disease is unknown, a brand new hybrid, no known cure. It is something even our best science is helpless to stop, even as dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions die. They perish because despite our last few centuries of humanist optimism, some things no amount of science can prevent.

As the death toll rises and panic sets in, the fear of death is all around. The President hides in an underground bunker. Chicago is declared a quarantine zone. Fear outweighs hope, fear defeats hope, fear beats hope into dust.

A disease that causes so much death and destruction, spreading so easily and so rapidly, grinds away the human spirit.

Self-Preservation Is More Powerful Than Love

The disease however is just one enemy, just one aspect of the greater terror of Contagion. Our response to the disease is just as fearsome and just as deadly. When death is so near, society cannot sustain itself. Morality is abandoned. Streets erupt in panic and violence.

Ordinary citizens now become looters, home invaders, and profiteers. People dissolve long lines just to get to the front. Muscle over mind, desperate souls push their way ahead of the rest to get what they need. To take what they need.

There is no kindness while the deadly disease rages on. Self-preservation becomes the new mantra in the battle of survival.

Disorder Is More Powerful Than Order

While the virus multiplies and social institutions crumble, society as we know it begins to fall. There is no calling 911, no fire department, no hospital nurses. The threat of imminent death throws us into completely chaos.

Even as valiant attempts to curb the pandemic are implemented in the form of a powerful vaccine, it too is governed by the randomness of the lottery. There are no guarantees in the chaotic world of the virus. Your salvation is determined by chance, order yields to the vacuum of disorder.

While the dead lie in mass graves, no reason is given for this vicious plague upon humanity. It is all by chance. A bat and a pig meeting under the tiniest most trivial of circumstances. It has no purpose, no reason, no justification for being. It simply is.

In a word, we are powerless.

Points of Thematic Disagreement

It is unfair to the filmmakers to reduce Contagion’s themes to this simple set of three, but I do so for the sake of time and because these three I find the most unrealistic and untrue. Yes, the film occasionally takes time to venerate the courageous ethical choices of the main cast in spite of the gloom and despair. We get a host of scientists who work tirelessly and sacrificially to find a cure and one parent who tries to protect his daughter in a hostile environment. Yes, a cure is discovered. But curiously none of these examples fit the tagline or emotional tenor of the movie.

This is a thriller, designed to thrill with the terror and discomfort of an invisible unstoppable killer. A contagion finds you, infects you, and then ends you for no rational or understandable purpose. It is the fear of the unknown, it tears through the social and moral fabric of world because it can. All the while this virus manages to expose the thin artificial nature of basic human decency, constantly reminding us how uncertain and tenuous our mortal existence really is.

Contagion fails to show that outside a few brave scientists in laboratories there is a greater innate hope beyond mere survival. But this is wrong. If the police never arrive, justice does not die. If the nurses never show up, healing does not cease.

I must agree with Contagion’s premise that fear exists and death may strike any one of us at any moment. I agree that uncertainty can cause humans to reveal the worst aspects of our nature: cowardice, rage, violence, greed, brutality. Those things are true. But as a spiritual person and confessing Christian, I sense that no one is truly powerless. Fear is not as contagious as the film would have us believe.

I’ve never been through a global catastrophe or natural disaster, but in such times many things spread other than fear . When earthquakes rip apart Haiti, there may be corruption but there is also a tremendous outpouring of relief workers and foreign aide. When tsunamis sweep innocent victims into the ocean, there is tragedy but there is also supplies and medical assistance donated almost immediately.

Fear is contagious, but hope is even more contagious.
Selfishness is contagious, but love is doubly so.
Chaos is contagious, but structure and purpose far outstrip it.

Humans may not naturally incline toward love and hope and purpose, but once given an example to follow they eventually learn to be better humans. If such a deadly contagion befell our race, a loving God would sustain us in love and help us continue to press on as we have always done. We would forge new societies, new bonds, and new purpose out of the ashes. A disease which kills the body does not necessarily kill the soul. That is the infectious nature of hope.


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