We have a VCD copy of Wolfgang Peter’s 1995 film Outbreak. People dying from a deadly virus for which there was no vaccine. Sam and Alex watched that film so many times when they were toddlers. Sam because she thought the monkey (the host of the virus) was super cute. It’s been her dream to have a pet monkey since. Alex watched it because… oh, I really don’t know. She was just starting to talk at the time and I think she was learning to mouth words and associate them with visual things. She had her own name for the plane that dropped a bomb into the sea toward the end of the film. I won’t tell you what it is though. It’s a family secret.
Contagion is reminiscent of Outbreak‘s scenario. Except that it lacks the usual Hollywood antics, invincible heroes and evil villains. Contagion is sober, grave and somber, and that makes it more macabre. I’d call it a horror movie despite the fact that there are no ghosts, no zombies, no mutilation, no decapitated blondes, no screamers, no monsters, no gore. Just people. And one deadly virus that multiplies so fast it makes geometric progression sound slow and inefficient in comparison.
You can imagine the panic and fear when there’s an outbreak. We’ve seen the scenario in real life often enough. SARS, bird flu, dengue… But when there is no cure and contamination can lead to death in a matter of days, the fear grows. And when the virus spreads literally like wildfire, there’s pandemonium. And that’s not even the scariest part.
Imagine when basic services fail. Markets closed. No food. Imagine the looting, the violence, the injuries and deaths that inevitably result when too many are fighting over very little resources. Imagine when what little food there is might be fatal to eat because it may have been touched by a carrier of the disease.
Imagine when a vaccine is successfully developed but its mass manufacture is hampered and delayed by bureaucratic red tape. Imagine when the slow manufacture means people are dying in droves because there isn’t enough vaccine for every sick person.
Imagine people in possession of information that can save thousands but, in obedience to their superiors, withhold the information from the public but use it for the benefit of their loved ones.
That is where Contagion departs from the usual Hollywood Outbreak-type films. It is more concerned with exploring human nature and how people act and react when fighting for his survival and those of his loved ones. Oh, and how this exploration is executed. In a nutshell, there are no heroes and martyrs. In the worst of times, even the best of us will lie, cheat, steal and kill in order to survive. Moral norms no longer apply. It’s not about right and wrong anymore, or good and bad. It’s just a jungle and everyone just wants to live.
It’s the scariest scenario ever. It’s even scarier than nuclear attacks which can stop upon orders of the powerful. But a virus that can kill humans with such devastating speed? Even the most powerful man in the most powerful country cannot smash his fist on his desk and imperially order the virus to leave and never return.
Of course, it’s just a movie. It’s fiction. For now.