Contagion premiered at the 68th Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy on September 3, 2011, and was theatrically released on September 9, 2011. Commercially, the film made $135 million against its $60 million production budget. It was praised by critics for its narrative and the performances. It was also well received by scientists, who lauded its accuracy. The film received renewed popularity during the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic.
Returning from a business trip in Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff has a layover in Chicago and meets a former lover for sex. Two days later, in her family home in suburban Minneapolis, she collapses with seizures. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff, rushes her to the hospital, but she dies of an unknown cause. Mitch returns home and finds that his stepson Clark has died from a similar disease. Mitch is put in isolation but is found to be immune; he is released and returns home to his teenage daughter Jory.
At the CDC, Dr. Ally Hextall determines the virus is a mix of genetic material from pig- and bat-borne viruses. Work on a cure stalls because scientists cannot discover a cell culture within which to grow the newly identified MEV-1. University of California professor Dr. Ian Sussman violates orders from Cheever to destroy his samples, and identifies a usable MEV-1 cell culture using bat cells. Hextall uses the breakthrough to begin work on a vaccine. Other scientists determine the virus is spread by fomites, with a basic reproduction number of four when the virus mutates; they project that 1 in 12 of the world population will be infected, with a 25–30% mortality rate.
Conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede posts videos about the virus on his blog. In one video, he claims he has cured himself of the virus using a homeopathic cure derived from forsythia. People seeking forsythia overwhelm pharmacies. During a television interview, Krumwiede discloses that Cheever secretly informed friends and family to leave Chicago before it was quarantined. Cheever is informed he will be investigated. Krumwiede, having faked his illness to boost sales of forsythia, is arrested for conspiracy and securities fraud.
Using an attenuated virus, Hextall identifies a possible vaccine. To cut out the lengthy time it would take to obtain informed consent from infected patients, Hextall inoculates herself with the experimental vaccine and visits her infected father. She does not contract MEV-1 and the vaccine is declared a success. The CDC awards vaccinations by lottery based on birthdate. By this time, the death toll has reached 2.5 million in the U.S. and 26 million worldwide.
Earlier, in Hong Kong, World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes and public health officials comb through tapes of Beth's contacts in a Macau casino and identify her as the index case. Government official Sun Feng kidnaps Orantes as leverage to obtain MEV-1 vaccine doses for his village, where she remains for months. WHO officials provide them with vaccines and she is released. When Orantes learns the vaccines given to the village were placebos, she runs to warn them.
In a flashback, a bulldozer knocks down a tree in a rainforest in China, disturbing some bats. One finds shelter in a pig farm and drops a piece of banana, which is eaten by a pig. The pig is slaughtered and prepared by a chef in a Macau casino, who shakes hands with Beth, transmitting the virus to her.
Orantes' main objective is to trace the origins of the MEV-1 pathogen. Cotillard, a fan of Soderbergh's work, first met with the director in Los Angeles, California. The French actress was enthralled with the script because she was "very concerned about germs. I've always been ... scared, in a way, by all of those disease[s]. So ... it was really something I was really interested." Soderbergh said that Orantes "gets dropped into situations and has to deal with cultural as well as scientific issues that are sometimes at odds", and notes that she has a "professional" yet stubborn, "remote", and "dispassionate" demeanor, though "something happens to her in the course of the story that causes a significant emotional shift."
Matt Damon, a frequent collaborator of Soderbergh's, was chosen to portray Mitch Emhoff.
Damon viewed his character as the embodiment of the "everyman"—an individual that is seen as "one of the human faces of the supervirus" following his wife and stepson's deaths. Soderbergh also noted Mitch's "common individual" lack of medical and scientific knowledge, though keeping the situation dynamic and compelling was challenging for the director, as he was concerned that Emhoff would be a one-dimensional character. Soderbergh felt that Damon understood the concept and addressed the producers' concerns. "You never catch him acting", said Soderbergh. "There's no vanity, no self-consciousness in his performance; it's as if the cameras aren't there." Writer Scott Z. Burns sent him a copy of the script with a "read this and then go wash your hands" note attached to it. Damon recalled: "I just really want to be in this movie. It was a terrific, riveting, really fast read and really exciting and really horrifying, but managed to be really touching."
Soderbergh admired Fishburne's ability to portray an emphatic and assertive figure in previous films. To Fishburne, Cheever was a "smart", "competent" physician who often epitomized a "voice of reason". Once he conferred with W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist and professor at Columbia University, the character's complexities were nonexistent for the actor. Fishburne stated, "The personal stuff that I have as Ellis Cheever was telling my fiancée, soon-to-be wife, Sanaa Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk. That's really easy. Any human being in that situation is going to do that, I think."
Krumwiede is an ardent conspiracy theorist who, according to Law, is the so-called index patient for "what becomes a parallel epidemic of fear and panic". "We definitely wanted him to have a messianic streak", said Soderbergh, whom Law talked to during the character's creating process. The two men discussed the appearances and the behaviors of a typical anti-government conspiracy theorist. Producer Gregory Jacobs commented that "what's interesting is that you're not really sure about him. Is the government really hiding something and does the herbal remedy he's talking about really work? I think we all suspect at one time or another that we're not getting the whole truth, and in that sense Krumwiede represents the audience's point of view."
A "working mom", as described by Paltrow, Beth is the central figure in the detective process. Despite being among the virus' first victims, Paltrow believed that Beth was "lucky" as she thought the disease's survivors were being left to deal with the newly difficult conditions of everyday life, such as finding food and potable water. When on location in Hong Kong, Paltrow was instructed by Soderbergh to take photographs to be used in the film, and admitted she was apprehensive about the assignment. "I was just another tourist taking pictures", she said, and added, "I did feel a little pressure. When Steven Soderbergh gives you a photo assignment, you had better come back with something decent."
Kate Winslet traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she met with many of the employees to research her character.
In researching her character, Winslet traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), currently in Atlanta, Georgia, where she consulted with current and former officers of the Epidemic Intelligence Service to receive insight on not only the daily life, but on the type of person qualified for the occupation. "These are people who can be sent into war zones where there's been an outbreak of a new virus. Fear is not an option. If they feel it, they learn to push it aside." Winslet felt that Mears was able to bring the epidemic "down to the layman's level" so the viewer could comprehend the scope of it without the science dragging the story down.
Soderbergh had seen Ehle's performance in Michael Clayton (2007), though it was ultimately cut prior to the film's release, and it prompted him to offer her a role in Contagion. He "had known who Jennifer was for a long time, and this didn't take a lot of thought, honestly".
Han spoke of his character's development: "He starts off as a button-down, serious ... government official, and then as the movie progresses ... you find out a different side of him and his secret agenda."
John Hawkes as Roger, CDC custodian and acquaintance of Dr. Cheever
Anna Jacoby-Heron as Jory Emhoff, daughter of Mitch Emhoff
There's a scene in The Informant! where Matt (Damon) is watching Scott Bakula's character talk on the phone and Scott coughs on the phone, and there's this whole rant that Matt goes off on of 'Oh, great, now what happens? He gets sick and then I'm going to get it, my kids are going to get it.' I've always been fascinated by transmissibility, so I said to Steven, 'I want to do an interesting thriller version of a pandemic movie' and he said, 'Great! Let's do that instead.'
Concerted efforts to devise Contagion coincided with Burns' collaboration with Soderbergh in The Informant! (2009). The duo had initially planned to create a biographical film on Leni Riefenstahl, a trailblazer in German cinema during the 1930s and a figure in the rise of the Nazi Party. Soderbergh later contacted Burns to cancel the project, as he thought that a film about Riefenstahl would struggle to attract an audience. Intrigued with the field of transmission, Burns suggested that they instead create a film that centered on a pandemic situation—"an interesting thriller version of a pandemic movie". His main objective was to construct a medical thriller that "really felt like what could happen".
Burns consulted with Lawrence "Larry" Brilliant, renowned for his work in eradicating smallpox, to develop an accurate perception of a pandemic event. He had seen one of Brilliant's TED presentations, which he was fascinated by, and realized that "the point of view of people within that field isn't 'If this is going to happen', it's 'When is this going to happen?'" Brilliant introduced Burns to another specialist, W. Ian Lipkin. With the aid of these physicians, the producers were able to obtain additional perspectives from representatives of the World Health Organization. Burns also met with the author of The Coming Plague, Laurie Garrett. Her 1995 book helped Burns consider a variety of potential plots for the film. He wanted to feature an official from the CDC, and ultimately decided to use an epidemiologist, since that role requires interacting with people while tracking the disease.
Although he had done research on pandemics six months prior to the 2009 flu pandemic, the outbreak was "really helpful" to his studies, because it provided a glimpse of the societal apparatus following the onset stages of a pandemic. To him, it was not solely the virus itself that one had to be concerned about, but how society handles the situation. "I saw them come to life", Burns said, "and I saw issues about, 'Well, do you close the schools and if you close the schools, then who stays home with the kids? And will everyone keep their kids at home?' Things happening online, which is where the Jude Law character came from, that there's going to be information that comes out online where people want to be ahead of the curve, so some people will write things about anti-virals or different treatment protocols, and so there's always going to be an information and that information also has sort of a viral pulse."
Some of Chicago's landscape provided for the setting of Minneapolis and Atlanta.
In conjunction with overseeing the directing process, Soderbergh functioned as a cinematographer for Contagion. The film was wholly shot using Red Digital Cinema's RED One MX digital camera, which has a 4.5K image resolution. Since he hoped for the premise to be authentic and "as realistic as possible", Soderbergh opted not to film in the studio. "There's, to me, nothing more satisfying occasionally than making someplace look like someplace else on film and having nobody know the difference." For choosing cities, Soderbergh felt that they couldn't "go anywhere where one of our characters hasn't been", since he wanted to portray an "epic", yet "intimate" scenario. He explained,
We can't cut to a city or a group of extras that we've never been to that we don’t know personally. That was our rule. And that’s a pretty significant rule to adhere to in a movie in which you're trying to give a sense of something that’s happening on a large scale, but we felt that all of the elements that we had issues with prior, when we see any kind of disaster film, we're centered around that idea.
Cliff Martinez composed the film's soundtrack, which was his first big-screen score for Soderbergh since Solaris in 2002. Given that the pacing of the music was one of Soderbergh's biggest concerns, Martinez needed to maintain a brisk pace throughout the soundtrack, while also conveying fear and hope within the music. "I tried to create the sound of anxiety. And at key, strategic moments I tried to use the music to conjure up the sense of tragedy and loss." Martinez incorporated orchestral elements, and fused them with the predominantly electronic sounds of the score. He noted that the "sound palette for Contagion came by way of combining three very different approaches Steven went through as he was cutting the film." Martinez received a rough cut for the film in October 2010, which contained music that was imbued with elements of The French Connection (1971) and Marathon Man (1976). He "loved" those two soundtracks, and composed a few pieces in their style. A few months later, he acquired a new cut, which included music influenced by German electronic group Tangerine Dream. Toward the end, Soderbergh changed again and used contemporary soundtrack music that was "more energetic and more rhythmic". Ultimately, Martinez used aspects of all three approaches: "I reasoned that combining them would not only be effective but would give the score a style all its own." The score was released by WaterTower Music in September 2011.
Themes and analysis
An electron microscope image of the H1N1 influenza virus. The 2009 flu epidemic was a key inspiration and influence on the creation of Contagion.
An electron microscope image of the SARS virus. The 2003 SARS outbreak was also an inspiration and influence of Contagion.
Steven Soderbergh was motivated to make an "ultra-realistic" film about the public health and scientific response to a pandemic. The movie touches on a variety of themes, including the factors which drive mass panic and collapse of social order, the scientific process for characterizing and containing a novel pathogen, balancing personal motives against professional responsibilities and ethics in the face of an existential threat, the limitations and consequences of public health responses, and the pervasiveness of interpersonal connections which can serve as vectors to spread disease. Soderbergh acknowledged the salience of these post-apocalyptic themes is heightened by reactions to the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. The movie was intended to realistically convey the "intense" and "unnerving" social and scientific reactions to a pandemic. The real-life epidemics such as the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak and the 2009 flu pandemic have been inspirations and influences in the film. The chain of contagion involving bats and pigs is reminiscent of the trail of the Nipah virus (which infects cells in the respiratory and nervous systems, the same cells as the virus in the movie) that originated in Malaysia in 1997, which similarly involved the disturbance of a bat colony by deforestation.
The film presents examples of crowd psychology and collective behavior which can lead to mass hysteria and the loss of social order. The bafflement, outrage, and helplessness associated with the lack of information, combined with new media such as blogs, allow conspiracy theorists like Krumwiede to spread disinformation and fear, which become dangerous contagions themselves. Dr. Cheever must balance the need for full disclosure but avoid a panic and allow the time to characterize and respond to an unknown virus. The movie indirectly critiques the greed, selfishness, and hypocrisy of isolated acts in contemporary culture and the unintended consequences they can have in the context of a pandemic. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends social distancing by forcibly isolating the healthy to limit the spread of the disease, which stands in stark opposition to contemporary demands for social networking. Responding to the pandemic presents a paradox, as the contagiousness and lethality of the virus instills deep distrust of others but surviving and limiting the spread of the disease also requires individuals to work together.
Against this existential threat and fraying social order, the film also explores how individual characters bend or break existing rules for both selfish and selfless reasons. Dr. Hextall violates protocols by testing a potential vaccine on herself, Dr. Sussman continues experiments on a cell line despite orders to destroy his samples, Dr. Cheever notifies his fiancée to leave the city before a public quarantine is imposed, Sun Feng kidnaps Dr. Orantes to secure vaccine supplies for his village, Dr. Mears continues her containment work despite contracting the virus, and Krumwiede is paid to use his blog to peddle snake oil cures so as to drive demand and profit for investors in alternative medicine. Soderbergh repeatedly uses the cinematographic style of lingering and focusing on the items and objects which are touched by the infected and become vectors (fomites) to infect other people. These objects link characters together and reinforce the multi-narrative hyperlink cinema style which Soderbergh developed in Traffic (2000) and Syriana (2005), which he produced.
The story also highlights examples of political cronyism (a plane to evacuate Dr. Mears from Minneapolis is instead diverted to evacuate a congressman), platitudes and rigid thinking (public health officials consider postponing the closing of shopping malls until after the Thanksgiving shopping season), federal responders trying to navigate 50 separate state-level public health policies, and the heroism of Federal bureaucrats. Soderbergh does not use type-cast pharmaceutical executives or politicians as villains, but instead portrays bloggers such as Krumwiede in a negative light.Social media play a role in Krumwiede's accusations against Dr. Cheever and in Emhoff's daughter's attempts to carry on a relationship with her boyfriend through text messaging. Other responses in the movie, such as Emhoff's appropriating a shotgun from a friend's abandoned house to protect his home from looters, imposition of federal quarantines and curfews, the allocation of vaccines by lottery, inadequate federal preparation and responses, and use of bar-coded wristbands to identify the inoculated highlight the complex tensions between freedom and order in responding to a pandemic. Soderbergh uses Emhoff to illustrate the micro-effects of macro-level decisions.
Release and box office
Contagion premiered on September 3, 2011, at the 68th Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy, and a wider release followed on September 9. In the United States and Canada, Contagion was shown in 3,222 theaters, of which 254 screenings occurred at IMAX venues. Various American commercial analysts anticipated that the film would have ticket sales of between $20–$25 million during its opening weekend, which it did, grossing $8 million on its first day, and $23.1 million for the entire weekend. Of that total, ten percent ($2.3 million) of the gross came from IMAX screenings. By outgrossing competitor The Help ($8.7M), Contagion became the highest-grossing film of the week. Demographically, the opening audience was evenly divided among gender, according to Warner Bros., while eighty percent of spectators were of the age of 25 and over.Contagion did well the following weekend, generating a $14.5 million box office, but came in second to the re-release of The Lion King (1994). The third week saw the box office drop by forty percent, for a total gross of $8.7 million. By the fourth week, Contagion had dropped to ninth place at the box office with $5 million, and the number of theaters narrowed to 2,744. The film completed its theatrical run on December 15, 2011, at which point its total domestic gross was $75.6 million.
Contagion made its international debut in six foreign markets the same weekend as its American release, including Italy, where it achieved $663,000 from 309 theaters. The first week saw Contagion gross $2.1 million from 553 establishments—a per-theater average of $3,797. Foreign grosses for Contagion would remain relatively stagnant up until the weekend of October 14–16, 2011, when the film expanded into several additional European markets. Out of the $3.9 million that was generated from 1,100 venues during that weekend, nearly 40% of the gross originated from Spain, where the film earned $1.5 million from 325 theaters. With the growing expansion of the film in seven additional markets, the weekend of October 21–23, 2011 saw Contagion take in $9.8 million from 2,505 locations, increasing the international gross to $22.9 million. In the United Kingdom, one of the film's significant international releases, Contagion opened in third place at the box office with $2.3 million from 398 theaters; it subsequently garnered the highest debut gross of a Soderbergh film since Ocean's Thirteen (2007). International grosses for Contagion totaled $59.8 million.
Contagion has received positive reviews by film commentators. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 85% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 265 reviews, with an average rating of 7.07/10. The website's critics consensus states, "Tense, tightly plotted, and bolstered by a stellar cast, Contagion is an exceptionally smart – and scary – disaster movie." On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 based on the critiques from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 70 based on 38 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
The Guardian journalist Peter Bradshaw felt that Contagion blended well together as a film, although opined that Soderbergh was somewhat unsuccessful in channeling the fears, frights, and "the massive sense of loss" of "ordinary people". To David Denby of The New Yorker, the "brilliant" film was "serious, precise, frightening," and "emotionally enveloping". Despite applauding Soderbergh for "hopscotching" tidily "between the intimate and international", The Atlantic'sChristopher Orr was disappointed with the film's detached and "clinical" disposition, which led him to conclude that Contagion should have gone with a more inflexible rationale, or a lesson "beyond 'wash your hands often and hope you're lucky'." "For all the craft that went into it, Contagion is ultimately beyond good or bad, beyond criticism. It just is," professed The Atlantic writer. Describing it as a "smart" and "spooky" installment, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Soderbergh doesn't milk your tears as things fall apart, but a passion that can feel like cold rage is inscribed in his images of men and women isolated in the frame, in the blurred point of view of the dying and in the insistent stillness of a visual style that seems like an exhortation to look." In regards to the story, Salon columnist Andrew O'Hehir avouched that the "crisp" and succinct narrative matched up to the "beautifully composed" visuals of the film.Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed that Soderbergh and Burns effectively created anxiety in the "shrewd" and "unsensationalistic" film without becoming exaggerated, a sentiment echoed by Jeannette Catsoulis of NPR, who insisted that the duo "weave multiple characters into a narrative that's complex without being confusing, and intelligent without being baffling". Writing for The Village Voice, Karina Longworth thought that Contagion reflected the "self-consciousness" and "experimentation" of some of Soderbergh's previous efforts, such as the Ocean's trilogy and The Girlfriend Experience (2009).
The character development of multiple characters produced varying response from critics. Contrary to Mitch's stance as the main protagonist, Michael O'Sullivan of The Washington Post felt that Contagion "treats him with an oddly clinical detachment". In particular Law's character, Alan Krumwiede, attracted commentary from Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote, "The blogger subplot doesn't interact clearly with the main story lines and functions mostly as an alarming but vague distraction."
Ferris Jabr of New Scientist approved of Contagion for accurately portraying the "successes and frustrations" of science. Jabr cites story elements such as "the fact that before researchers can study a virus, they need to figure out how to grow it in cell cultures in the lab, without the virus destroying all the cells" as examples of accurate depictions of science.Carl Zimmer, a science writer, praised the film, stating, "It shows how reconstructing the course of an outbreak can provide crucial clues, such as how many people an infected person can give a virus to, how many of them get sick, and how many of them die." He also describes a conversation with the film's scientific consultant, W. Ian Lipkin, in which Lipkin defended the rapid generation of a vaccine in the film. Zimmer wrote that "Lipkin and his colleagues are now capable of figuring out how to trigger immune reactions to exotic viruses from animals in a matter of weeks, not months. And once they've created a vaccine, they don't have to use Eisenhower-era technology to manufacture it in bulk."Paul Offit, a pediatrician and vaccination expert, stated that "typically when movies take on science, they tend to sacrifice the science in favor of drama. That wasn't true here." Offit appreciated the film's usage of concepts such as R0 and fomites, as well as the fictional strain's origins, which was based on the Nipah virus.
Contagion was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on January 3, 2012, and in the United Kingdom on March 5, 2012. In its first week of release, the film topped the DVD chart with 411,000 units sold for $6.16 million. That same week it sold 274,000 Blu-ray copies for $4.93 million, topping that chart as well. DVD sales dropped during the second week of release, with 193,000 units sold for $2.89 million. As of early July 2012, Contagion had sold 802,535 copies in DVD, for $12.01 million in revenue.
In 2020, the film received renewed popularity due to the coronavirus pandemic, which bears some resemblance to the pandemic depicted in the film. By March 2020, Contagion was the seventh most popular film on iTunes, listed as the number two catalog title on Warner Bros. compared to its number 270 rank the past December 2019, and had average daily visits on piracy websites increase by 5,609 percent in January 2020 compared to the previous month.HBO Now also reported that Contagion had been the most viewed title for two weeks straight.
^Jannard, Jim (September 9, 2011). "Contagion". Reduser.net. Question: So, when it was all said and done, how much of the film was shot with the MX, and how much with the EPIC, Jim? James Jannard: 100% MX. And Steven called the grade.