While many sober-minded Americans are resolving to “keep calm and carry on” in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris, and, apparently some in his circle of acquaintances, are re-watching the movie “Contagion.” Perfect.
Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded movie, which came out in 2011, is genuinely scary. People all over the world are dropping like flies as a seemingly unstoppable virus of unknown origin is spreading rapidly. There is an end of the world feel.
In other words, just the thing to induce nightmares at a time when common sense might be more availing. In the piece, that carries a picture of Gwyneth Paltrow dying of the plague, Morris explains why his set is watching the movie:
In the best of times, we civilians are unlikely to have a clear sense of what to expect from our leaders and government agencies. So in addition to looking to Washington for clarity in these stressful times, lots of us have turned to Soderbergh. “Contagion” offers gymnastic catastrophe — it kicks, glides and throbs; it sticks the landing. …
The movie hit me squarely in my entertainment cortex, this funny, scary, stylish, soapy, plausible speculation of life during a global outbreak. The appeal now is how it’s proving to be an instructive worst-case scenario of our current freak-out. We’ve turned to it, in part, to know how bad things could get.
And they say Republicans are anti-science!
As people die with remarkable frequency, there is a measure of comfort in the movie that Morris finds lacking in our response to a real plague: you see, the group of experts working on the crisis, is . . . diverse. Mr. Morris writes:
One thrill of the movie is its belief in solution-driven competence. (Bonus points for having women embody that competence; they are almost saintly.) The only people who flip out are civilians: Law, as a Blogger Who Knows the Truth and Damon, who loses half his family (Paltrow was his wife) but is biologically immune (classic Damon). Watching movie stars be world-savingly smart really does lower your blood pressure.
But maybe worldwide deaths of a gruesome nature elevate the blood pressure? Indeed, Mr. Morris’ innocent pleasure begins to flag:
After 45 minutes, my delight subsided. I remembered why I was watching this again. And the gravity of it all set in — deeper than something terrifying like the “28 Days” zombie movies, although not as movingly as a novel like “Station Eleven” or the archival footage AIDS documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”
The movie’s potential death toll — 70 million, somebody says — seems high compared to what officials are surmising about Covid-19. But people are dying. The striking nurses and empty gyms, malls and airports; the panic to flee: It all feels real.
The movie doesn’t predict the racism and xenophobia that have broken out in the United States. (Maybe you saw the clip of a nincompoop newsperson asking whether we could get the virus from Chinese food.) Instead, it has desperate Hong Kong villagers kidnap an important white lady in order to get them to the front of the vaccine line.
If Morris wants to seek insights into the coronavirus outbreak in a scary movie, that says more about his regard for science and the commonweal than it does about what is happening.