My project will be analyzing Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion, from the literary lens by examining the film’s dialogue, its screencaps, cinematics, the sound effects and music, and angles of the scenes through different characters’ eyes and the viewers’. There is little suspension of disbelief in the film such as the reality of the outbreak, finding and dealing with the infected, the spread of a new virus, infection control, burial, and finally vaccine development. As a result, fear is developed not only to describe the virus, but also the people that becomes affected by it. This paper will examine the element of fear and what it means to be truly afraid by looking into the concepts offered through the four topics.
A Historical Insight into the Making of the Film
Prior to the making of the film, Soderbergh sought out help from Dr. Ian Lipkin, who at the time disagreed with any inclusion of the film unless it was medically and scientifically accurate (Kritz 1). In Fran Kritz’s weblog post, he writes that the screenwriter of Contagion, Scott Burns, claims that the film was created to advise a plausible outbreak and not a Hollywood exaggeration (Kritz 1). With how the movie progressed, there was a linear plotline that ultimately drove it towards the long-waited vaccine. Rupen Nepales’ interview with Dr. Ian Lipkin advises what should be done during the pandemic by looking back to past pandemics such as SARS. The movie does a good job in explaining the outbreak, the backlash when a lack of prevention, security, and readiness happens within countries, and the reason as to why the virus spread in the first place.
Fear as a Concept
The idea of fear envelopes majority of the film through different means. It is seen most obviously through the dialogue, but the lack of it through the emphasis of silence heightens it even further. Sound effects and music play a large role in the film. While the official soundtrack is limited, the repetition of the booming eerie music is enough to guide the audience towards that impending death, even if they wish not to arrive there. The sound effect is meant to catch the audience’s attention, such as the scene where Beth is talking to her affair over the phone at the airport. Despite the background noise of the airport, the sound of her lips and the swallow that she makes are heightened to catch the audience’s attention, and it is obvious that she is starting to get sick. Meanwhile, when Mitch and his daughter are driving to the grocery store, the scene pans back to the devastated state of the store with people fighting each other for items. This scene is seen from behind the glass window and amplified by the deafening music instead. People watch with fearful eyes and the only thing driving them forward is the hope to survive.
Yet, despite the hope of surviving, they make the situation worse by crowding, attacking each other, and fighting for food and vaccines that are scarce. Furthermore, the virus may have been what started the fear, but what spreads is the fear of human bodies.
This fear is also exemplified using the movie’s colour schemes through its cinematics. For example, many frames and scenes are coloured by hues of yellow, green, and blue. This effect portrays the tense situation that circulates around the virus. The audience develops fear when they are forced to watch the characters struggle and die through the virus. Death is almost always mirrored by the effects of blue coloured scenes and it is almost always foreshadowed by the colours yellow and green.
The panning of the film’s scenes is explicitly done by zooming the camera’s lens directly at the character in question. The angling of these scenes is meant to portray the stress that is caused by the virus. More specifically, these angles serve as a reminder of how it spreads, and more importantly, that there is no suspension of disbelief that will render the virus suddenly ineffective. There is no absolute solution throughout most of the film, even until the end when a vaccine is developed. The fear or the virus suggests that even as a solution is proposed through a vaccine, the fear remains. This is seen in the camera angles through the film when it zooms in on the people. The virus spreads because there are people, and the fear remains because there are people.
In discussing dialogue again, an important note to consider is how largely jargonised the film is through medical words and theories. Since the movie is led by the scientific consultant, Dr. Ian Lipkin, much of the film’s use of jargon is accurate. For the general audience, this can be difficult to understand, however, the film does an adequate job of explaining these medical concepts through the explanations from acting doctors and scientists. More specifically, the movie does a great job of the people who are not doctors because the audience would be quicker to react to something they are familiar with than scientific jargon. The realism of the situation causes the audience to relate and in turn, the fear is intensified.
The concept of fear is seen through Contagion in many ways. In my project, I analyzed it through the different elements that the movie presents: cinematics, camera angle, dialogue, and music and sound effects. The most obvious fear is the virus, but the fear that remains is caused by humans. My project argues that while it is true that the virus started it, the fear that remains is perhaps the most frightening of it all, and that perhaps humans drive that fear to begin with. Thus, the virus is theoretically what began the fear, but the lingering fear that laid dormant existed long before the pandemic.
Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Participant Media, 2011. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/70185071.
Kritz, Fran. Fact-Checking ‘Contagion’ — in Wake of Coronavirus, the 2011 Movie is Trending. NPR, Washington, 2020. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/blogs,-podcasts,-websites/fact-checking-contagion-wake-coronavirus-2011/docview/2393637799/se-2?accountid=13631.
Morris, Wesley. “For Me, Rewatching ‘Contagion’ Was Fun, Until It Wasn’t.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/movies/contagion-movie-coronavirus.html.
Nepales, Ruben V. “Why ‘Contagion,’ out in 2011, Accurately Foretold Coronavirus Pandemic.” The Jakarta Post, 26 Apr. 2020, www.thejakartapost.com/life/2020/04/26/why-contagion-out-in-2011-accurately-foretold-coronavirus-pandemic.html.
ValueWalk: Coronavirus and Contagion: Freaked Out People Watching the 2011 Movie. Newstex, Chatham, 2020. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/blogs,-podcasts,-websites/valuewalk-coronavirus-contagion-freaked-out/docview/2348208388/se-2?accountid=13631.
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