*Disclaimer: Potential Spoilers*
For our second Film Fight, we’re going to take a look at films about a viral outbreak that threatens the safety and health of America and possibly the rest of humanity. Viral outbreaks are a great topics for books and for movies, given that any story that revolves around an enemy as small, deadly and seemingly indestructible as a virus makes for either a thriller, a horror or even an almost documentary style of story. So how did these two films do with a viral outbreak?
We’ll begin with an introduction, just in case you missed these movies at the box office:
A deadly virus, named the Motaba virus, breaks out in Africa in 1967 that causes severe internal bleeding and liquefies internal organs. A bomb is dropped onto the originating town to prevent the spread of the virus. 27 years later in 1994, another outbreak occurs, bringing the disease from the forests of Africa to the small sleepy town of Cedar Creek, California. The CDC and the United States Army Medial Research Institute of Infectious Diseases attempt to find the host of the disease and create an antidote for the virus as the death toll mounts while the country attempts to decide how extreme their measures towards the disease should be and what is worth sacrificing to save the country. Action, Drama, Thriller. Rated R for language, violence, gore, and frightening/intense scenes.
Healthcare professionals, government officials and everyday people find themselves in the middle of a worldwide epidemic of an unknown virus. Through several story lines the breakdown of social order is shown as fear spreads across the world as people continue to die while the CDC and World Health Organization attempt to find the cure and synthesize a vaccine as quickly as they can. Shot in an almost documentary style. Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller. Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.
With the basics out of the way, let us proceed!
We never actually get the name of the virus in Contagion, it is only called “the virus”. We follow the virus from where it originates with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, in which case it takes four days to finally kill her. The virus is spread through touch, which is a scary thought- it is pointed out during the film that humans touch their faces 2000 to 3000 times day, which is 3 to 5 times a minute, and every other minute they are touching something else (a doorknob, a water fountain, another person) so for a virus to spread through touch, it really brings to mind all of the awful things our bodies could be exposed to without our realizing it (I think I used all hand sanitizer in the house while watching this movie). It is, however, a little underwhelming to look at. The real killer in this movie is not actually the virus, no matter how deadly, but the fear that spreads because of the virus, so when you actually see someone die of the virus, it’s a little bit of a seizure and then the body.
Motaba, on the other hand, is anything but- I’m not going to post pictures of it because it does get very gory and graphic. If you want to see it yourself, watch the movie, otherwise you can save your stomach. When the film first starts the virus is spread through fluid transfer (blood, urine or water), but then mutates to spread through the air like the flu. This is just as frightening as being spread through touch, the idea that the very air you breath could be what poisons you, as well as keeping you alive. The first indication of the air transfer is when the town of Cedar Creek gets its hospital overrun with patients, all of whom where in a movie theater enjoying their evening before an infected man started coughing. Before twenty-four hours have even gone by, at least 20 people are sick, and it doesn’t take much longer for them to eventually die. When they do die, they are bloody and in pain and have a temperature high enough to start killing brain cells. Honestly, Motaba looks a lot more painful and visually frightening.
Well obviously, the main antagonist of both films is the virus itself. But it’s not quite as much fun to have an antagonist that can’t speak or give the audience something to root against and kinda wish they were dead or dying, so both movies made sure to include a human that we all kinda hate. In Outbreak, this is the character General Donald McClintock (played by Donald Sutherland, who would later become the tyrant of the Hunger Games franchise, so you get that he’s not someone to like). He is constantly comparing fighting the virus to fighting a war, and looks on the victims of the disease like soldiers who are killed in battle. He also hides the fact that after the previous outbreak of the disease, he helped to create an antiserum, which might have curbed the disease if it had been caught immediately.
Contagion‘s villain (though honestly both these men walk a very fine line between hero and anti-hero, their crusades could be read as them trying to help potentially) is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a journalist blogger and conspiracy theorist who begins to spread the idea that the governments are withholding the drug from the public in order to turn a profit from drug companies. He also claims to have the virus himself and advises against the vaccinations in favor of the homeopathic remedy Forsythia, which leads to riots throughout the world as people try to get ahold of it (thinking that he’s using it and surviving). He also might potentially be responsible for the death of a pregnant coworker who came to him for help (because he was seen arguing with her, he might have chosen to do nothing to help her).
Winner: Tie Honestly both these men are awful and yet not at the same time.
In order for a movie about an outbreak of a virus or sickness to work, there has to be passion. It’s a frightening topic and a frightening experience, the actors need to make you believe that they are frightened and the director needs to make you feel just as frightened as these people should be feeling. Outbreak, while it has moments of such dramatics that you get jolted form the story because it’s just so damn cheesy, in the real moments of terror and upset, you will feel what they are feeling. In one scene you follow a mother with the virus though being taken from her home to the medical facility, the testing of her blood, being taken into the camps, and you know how she feels. You watch the senators try to decide what to do about the town, and you feel their fear and anger at what they have to do. And when you watch the dead zipped into bags and burned in a barn to prevent the spread, you can’t help but think about how their families won’t have a burial and probably didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Contagion‘s passion is a little different- because it is shot in more of a documentary style, the storyline focuses less on specifics and more on the general ideas of the movie- social breakdown and fear. You don’t see as much of specific characters feeling these things, just glimpses of everyone feeling them, and it’s almost not as effective because you’re busy trying to keep track of who is in what position and which person is doing what job to try and track the disease and cure it. You lose some of the passion because you’re busy trying to remember which one is Dr. Mears and which one is Dr. Leonora and what exactly they are doing. The mass grave in the winter time is still chilling (no pun intended) but because we haven’t spent much time with any victims other than Paltrow, we aren’t as effected by it.
*Spoilers definitely in this part*
The happy ending vs the open ending is basically what it comes down to. By the time the movie ends in Contagion, not only does the virus not have a name, but there is no real cure and no real ending point. People are starting to get vaccinated, but people are also still dying and rioting and looting. Sure there is a cutsey moment when Matt Damon’s daughter gets to dance with her sweetheart at a homemade prom, but the movie leaves you thinking that there is still much left to be done and told, and you know what? It kind of works. It doesn’t rush to a conclusion that the audience will appreciate, it acknowledges that creating an antidote and saving the world takes more than the allotted hour and 45 minutes.
As I said before, Outbreak does have its cheesy moments, and one of those moments is the ending. While Dustin Hoffman’s standoff with the plane that is prepared to drop a bomb on the town to kill the virus is fantastic, the last scene revolves around the cure being discovered and created in a matter of hours and then given to his infected ex-wife. The end is happy, which is almost bitter to the taste because we’ve spent so much of the movie watching the dead and dying, and we still expect bad things. Sure it’s nice to think that diseases can be cured that fast, but it does sort of gloss over all the other dead people, and the fact that there is no way that the antidote could possibly be made that fast, no matter how good these CDC workers are.
Part of the reason we watch thrillers is because they are frightening and they force us to consider the possibility of what we’re seeing happening to us. One of the reasons everyone likes The Walking Dead is because they think about what they would do in the event of a zombie apocalypse. The appeal of both Outbreak and Contagion is the idea that if we were to be faced with these types of diseases (which we sort of were earlier this year with the Ebola virus in Africa) is what would happen really? Would society break down? Would the military take care of us, explain things to us, or just do what they could without telling us what was happening?
Personally, I’ll always go back to Outbreak because I can really feel what happens during it. But Contagion is not a bad option, maybe even the more realistic option, and both movies are certainly worth a watch. Though if you have a weak stomach, I highly recommend you watch Contagion over Outbreak– much less visibly gory.