Wednesday 22 November 2017

Why Contagion has us reaching for the hand sanitizer, as well as the popcorn

Jude Law features in Contagion
Jude Law features in Contagion

James Dempsey

Contagion goes viral today, an epidemic disaster movie that’s spreading across Britain and Ireland after infecting the US with its inflamed paranoia and slickly edited convulsions of a world out of control.

The collapse of society is no stranger to the silver screen, the disaster genre being a mainstay of the multiplex ever since the medium first developed over a century ago.

For as long as we’ve stared at moving pictures, we’ve sat rapt as rapture and Armageddon have shook the earth to its very core, silently – albeit with cracking crunches of popcorn or the pop pop popping of chewing gum bubbles – soaking up the fatalistic nihilism of watching everything and everyone succumb to inescapable annihilation.

Except for that one American family, and their doggy.

But as much as disaster cinema is cataclysmic escapism, it also holds a shattered mirror to the social fears of progressive generations of society, a cultural Frightgeist providing intermittent glimpses into the uneasiness that keeps us awake at night.

Early disaster movies capitalised on this with dramatic retellings of the sinking of the Titanic, while raging fires burnt ever-higher reaching cities to the ground. 1933’s Deluge saw New York swept away by a tsunami some 71 years before The Day After Tomorrow did the same thing.

The 1950s lay in the shadow of WWII, and thus mutated radioactive monsters and burgeoning cold war suspicions ravaged the world on screen. When your zombie wife tried to gnaw on your forearm in the early 60s, cinema reminded us to maintain our status as individuals and blow her brains out with a firearm.

This self-destructive Schadenfreude reached its zenith in the golden age of disaster cinema, the 1970s. Combining big name casts with revolutionary special effects resulted in a box-office and critical explosion that has carried on to this day.

Contagion’s star-studded epidemic, though, is a more subtle subgenre of disaster, one that steps back from the raining death of fiery meteors, the bone-crushing gravity of a series of earthquakes or the ritzy glitzy light show of a nuclear holocaust.

Steven Soderbergh’s film pounces with the psychological fear mongering of the inherent danger of grubby fingerprints on the handrail on a bus.

It’s the invisible pathogens lingering all over the keyboard of your laptop. It’s sharing a handshake, a hug or a kiss, and ending up in a mass grave with 60 other lesioned corpses as swatches of the populace fall foul of the sniffles. Contagion makes you reach for the hand-sanitizer, as well as the popcorn.

It’s a fear that’s hard to shake, and seeing it in a packed cinema screen only makes things worse.

Contagion deftly reminds audiences that disease is all about encountering other people.

Whether it’s sitting on a low-cost airline flight for a city break, opening a package shipped from some far-flung factory, or that guy in the row behind you that can’t stop spluttering his mucous membranes all over the multiplex, sickness is something that brings humanity closer together, in a clammy longing for codeine and, in my family, tumblers of hot 7-Up and a bootleg copy of Romancing the Stone.

The subtext in Soderbergh’s film isn’t hard to fathom; a world in free fall, the authorities and governmental bureaucrats trying desperately to maintain calm and order while a senseless and incomprehensible threat destroys families and livelihoods with careless abandon. Metaphor, anyone?

But in a week when a thousand jobs are lost, when housing is deemed unsafe to live in, when protesters are still reclaiming Dame St., and the political system hobbles on in a series of empty sound bites and snide rhetoric, as the world teeters ever closer to financial oblivion, there’s one thing to say for the pleasure of disaster cinema…

If we’re going down, at least the rest of the world is going down with us.

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