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The Absent Watchmaker

Scott Z. Burns's Contagion
The Absent Watchmaker

Contagion reflects the values of a prevalent segment of our society: those dominated by the idea that science is the only hope for our salvation. Modernists still thrive, despite the postmodern evidence that for every cure for polio, there is an advance in weapons of mass destruction. They think that Nature—and its priests, our scientists—alone can rescue us from ourselves.

Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven), the director of Contagion, is known for going back and forth between “serious” films and “big budget” ones. This movie toes the line between the two, racing through the super-charged story of a plague ravaging the world (26 million people killed in six weeks), but providing diverse sub-plots involving everything from underprivileged children in the mountains above Hong Kong to a father-daughter relationship in the cold of a Minnesota winter. Even with its rapid pace, the story is a cogent one. A killer virus creates social havoc because it spreads so rapidly and is so lethal, and a team of experts seeks to find out how to stop it. The film provides a textbook example of how the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization use the various means at their disposal to track the virus, discover its origin and develop a vaccine. In this film, however, the entire process is speeded up because the disease is so vicious, and a number of scientists have to break the rules in order to save the human race.

Excellent performances from an all-star cast bring the characters into sharp focus and provide them with deep viewer sympathy in a very short time. Most fully developed and most moving is the frightened father, Mitch Emhoff, portrayed by Matt Damon. Mitch spends much of the film protecting his daughter from exposure to the disease after the death of his wife and son early on. Mitch’s wife, played mostly in flashbacks by Gwyneth Paltrow, is the first to get the disease and dies early on; a subplot of her unfaithfulness contributes to the roundness of Damon’s character without needing a lot of exposition. This scarcity of backstory does not usually work, though, for the other characters in the film. Kate Winslet’s character, for example, died without enough opportunity to care sufficiently about her, though what Winslet did in such a short period of time on screen was extraordinary.

The plot points causing the breakthroughs that eventually win the day are well-spaced and very clever. Elliott Gould’s curmudgeonly old professor illegally continues his work after he has been told to destroy the samples of the virus that he has been given. His rebellion against the system brings to the table an important piece of the puzzle of the nature of the virus, as well as a clear example of the philosophy of salvation contained in Contagion. Another tireless researcher, played by the astounding Jennifer Ehle, makes the emotional, self-sacrificial decision that wins the day. Both Gould and Ehle play rugged individuals, totally dedicated to their science, and here is where the reality of the film breaks down: science and science alone—practiced by the researcher sometimes as lone hero, sometimes as team player—rescues mankind.

One of the earmarks of a deficient film is its inability to hold the viewer throughout the entirety of its story. Halfway through my first viewing, I suddenly became aware of an absurdity in Contagion: I was watching a film about the endangerment of the entire human race, but I had yet to see one person praying, one reference to religion, one bow to the irrepressible tendency of human beings to seek God in a crisis.

In fact, Contagion depicts just the opposite. There are two Christian symbols in the whole movie, and both are ironic and condescending. In a brief sighting, an out-of-focus nun, a nurse, leaves the side of a dying man, clearly overwhelmed by the situation and too nervous and/or frightened to help him. Enter an almost comatose Winslet, lying in the bed next to the dying patient, who, though she herself is dying and delirious, seeks to be the Good Samaritan and give him her blanket. The CDC will provide not only the knowledge needed to stop the virus, but also the humanity to care for those in need. No place for the clergy or the church here, thank you very much.

The second concise reference to religion is only a shot of a cross atop an open air school in the village above Hong Kong, signaling both that school, i.e. science, has replaced the church, and that knowledge will win the day, not religion. A third possible reference is unclear, but is just as problematic, if intended. In a quick montage showing the devastation of the disease, there is a brief sighting of what appears to be an empty church, not a full one with people seeking God’s help.

Contagion portrays the whole race as dog-eat-dog, as the virus spreads and the social fabric unravels. Only the scientists keep their cool, reach out to their fellow human beings, take risks that sometimes cost their lives and finally save the day. Richard Dawkins, rejoice. You have a friend in the makers of Contagion. Poor God; absent again, just when we needed Him.

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