Though Contagion was a modest success for Warner Brothers when released on September 9, 2011, its popularity has grown, as reflected in articles like “How ‘Contagion’ Suddenly Became the Most Urgent Movie of 2020” in Rolling Stone. Recently, with the pandemic of COVID-19 (coronavirus) sweeping the world and many communities going into quarantine, Contagion has resurfaced again. This movie about survival offers “survival information” for people who are looking for it. Here’s a recent Vulture article where screenwriter Scott Z. Burns answers questions about our current pandemic.
Contagion falls into the Save the Cat! genre of Dude with a Problem, which has three characteristic elements—Innocent Hero (in this case the citizens of the world), Sudden Event (already brewing in the first moments of the story), and Life and Death (high stakes pandemic). It’s an ensemble film, so the timeline follows multiple characters through the catastrophic, worldwide event—one that hits too close to home today.
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Genre: Dude With a Problem (Epic Problem)
How does Contagion hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the film:
Cinematic Cousins: Outbreak, The Stand, The Day After Tomorrow, The Andromeda Strain, When the Wind Blows, Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak, The Day After, Volcano, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Meteor, Armageddon, The Impossible, 127 Hours, Blindness, No Man’s Land, In Darkness, Time of the Wolf, Panic in Year Zero, The Day of the Triffids
Opening Image: Day 2. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), sweaty, waits at an airport bar. She has a phone conversation with a man with whom she recently had sex. She also had what seems to be an extramarital affair. We learn she was in Hong Kong and that she’s flying home. She doesn’t look well.
Set-Up: Other people around the world also seem to have what Beth Emhoff has. There’s Li Fai (Tien You Chui) in Kowloon, Hong Kong; Irina (Daria Strokous) in London; and Yoshiaki Kobayashi on a bus in Tokyo, Japan. They all suffer from fever and die quickly in a rapid-fire montage. Whatever they have—it’s quick and deadly.
Beth arrives home to Minneapolis, where husband Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and son Clark Morrow (Griffin Kane) wait for her.
Day 3. Introducing Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In San Francisco, Conspiracy Theorist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) talks with print journalist Lorraine Vasquez (Monique Gabriela Curnen) at the San Francisco Chronicle. He shares the video on his blog about the man dying on the bus in Tokyo. He believes it’s a bigger story. The Chronicle turns him down. They don’t print whack-job conspiracy theories.
Back in Minneapolis, Mitch Emhoff picks up his stepson Clark at school. Like his mom, he’s not feeling well.
Catalyst: Day 4. Beth Emhoff collapses and erupts into a seizure. Taken to the hospital, she convulses and dies.
Theme Stated: The Doctor (Stef Tovar) tells Mitch that Beth is dead. Mitch doesn’t accept the death or the doctor’s explanations. That’s the theme: dealing with this new, deadly reality.
Debate: When Mitch returns home, he finds that his son Clark has also died. What’s going on?
Day 5. Geneva, Switzerland. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization. Cases are springing up in Kowloon. People in London are dying. Something is going on. What is it?
Medical examiners do an autopsy on Beth. They’re shocked by what they find. They send out an alert.
Mitch’s daughter, Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron), comes to visit him in the hospital. He’s being isolated. Though he’s been exposed, he doesn’t seem to have the sickness. The doctors are running tests. Mitch tells his daughter to go to her biological mom’s, but she wants to be with him.
Day 6. Enter Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer. She’s been hired by Dr. Cheever at the CDC. She investigates Minnesota, where cases are already amassing. The city council is afraid to announce anything. Can this be an epidemic? Mears says in 72 hours, they’ll know.
At the CDC, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and Dr. David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin) run tests from Beth Emhoff’s brain sample. They can’t isolate what it is, so they send it to Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould), a research scientist at the University of California San Francisco. He works on it. Then as he’s walking out of his office, he’s hassled by conspiracy nut Krumwiede, who believes it’s a bioterrorist weapon. He’s spreading panic online with these views.
Day 7. The Department of Homeland Security picks up Cheever for questions. Headed by RADM Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston), they believe that this could be a weaponized virus designed to create chaos and panic for the Thanksgiving weekend.
Break into Two: Mears goes to Beth’s office and investigates her co-workers. The virus is being linked to Beth. The one co-worker who had contact with her is on the bus. Mears contacts him, and he’s the worse for wear. That leads Mears to Mitch Emhoff, who’s still in respiratory isolation. He learns that the man she had an affair with is also sick.
B Story: Dr. Ally Hextall determines that the virus has come from a combination of pigs and bats. She’s the “helper” who will advise people to understand the illness, and she will also invent the cure. She will help the world to survive, which ties into the theme of dealing with this new, deadly reality. It’s a novel virus—“the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat”—that hasn’t any treatment protocol or vaccine. Unfortunately, the doctors can’t create the cell culture in a lab as it kills every cell that’s introduced, so they cannot develop a vaccine.
Fun and Games: Ally calls Sussman and tells him he’s off the case. It’s “too hot,” and the samples need to be isolated. Ignoring the order, Sussman works on growing a cell culture.
Day 8. Affected cities are Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Salt Lake. Dr. Cheever gives a national television briefing on behalf of the CDC.
Dr. Leonora Orantes travels to Hong Kong since that’s where Beth Emhoff had been. Security video footage from the casino is found. It links up with all of the initial people she had contact with who all died (which we saw in the first few minutes).
Dr. Sussman, against orders, manages to grow the newly identified MEV-1 using bat cells. It’s the first step to creating a vaccine, which is several months off. So far, eight million people in the world are affected.
Alan Krumwiede has the “cure”—an herbal medication called Forsythia—and meets with an investment banker from Morgan Stanley. Forsythia can make them both rich if they sell it to Krumwiede’s two million blog readers.
Mitch Emhoff is immune to the disease. He will have to quarantine at his home with Jory.
Dr. Mears has a quarantine hospital set up in an armory. She and Dr. Cheever are still trying to locate the index patient; they’re not sure if it’s Beth Emhoff or someone else.
Jory has a boyfriend, Andrew (Brian J. O’Donnell). He tries to come into the Emhoff home, but Mitch wants to protect his daughter (since he’s lost his wife and son). Jory doesn’t understand the severity of what’s happening.
Midpoint: Dr. Orantes discovers that the virus originated from Macau and that Beth Emhoff is the index case. The local government wants to suppress the news. Dr. Mears wakes up with a cough. She has the virus; it’s only a matter of time (ticking clock) before she succumbs. Mitch Emhoff, watching TV, learns that there are thousands of cases in his area and the numbers are rising (stakes raised). The theme of dealing with this new, deadly reality is reiterated.
Bad Guys Close In: Sun Feng (Chin Han), who was working with Dr. Orantes, has been reading Krumwiede’s blog. He’s sucked into believing that foreign governments already have a vaccine and are secretly hoarding it; also, his mother died after treating her with Forsythia. He kidnaps the epidemiologist and takes her to what’s left of his village. Dr. Orantes will be used as a bargaining chip to get the vaccine for his people.
Krumwiede pretends that he has the virus and uses Forsythia to “treat” it. He becomes a millionaire overnight, but people trusting it as the cure will die. Dr. Cheever calls his fiancé, Aubrey Cheever (Sanaa Lathan), and tells her to leave Chicago. He’s sharing insider information from Homeland Security—this will come back to haunt him.
People are looting everywhere, breaking into stores, burning things down. People fight over Forsythia doses as a cure, which ironically, exposes them all to more of the virus. Mitch Emhoff and his daughter try to cross the bridge to Wisconsin. They’re turned away by the military. They must shelter in place.
All Is Lost: Dr. Erin Mears dies. She’s buried with many other infected corpses in a mass grave. Lorraine Vasquez of the Chronicle, who initially turned down Krumwiede’s story, is now at his door, cash in hand like a desperate junkie, begging for Forsythia. She dies.
Dark Night of the Soul: Rumors abound about the cure. Dr. Cheever, on television, says that they’re still working on a treatment, and social distancing needs to stay in place. Krumwiede comes on the program and calls Cheever a liar, saying that the World Health Organization is working with big pharma to profit from the tragedy. He also outs Dr. Cheever for telling his fiancé to flee.
Day 21. The virus is mutating; stakes are rising, which now means one in 12 people on the planet will contract the disease. Dr. Ally Hextall must run new tests with a live virus, which unfortunately kills a living host too fast. Never a good day to be a lab monkey.
Days 26–29. Sheltering in place, Mitch Emhoff is turned down from MREs from the army. Food supplies are dwindling. Looters break in and shoot his neighbors. Worried for his family’s safety, Mitch breaks into his empty neighbor’s house and steals a shotgun. When he returns, Jory is out with her boyfriend, Andrew, who’s still forbidden to come over. He has to pry them off each other.
One lucky lab monkey was administered Vaccine #57 and has no disease. Dr. Ally Hextall decides that to save lives, she’s going to have to test V-57 on herself. She does. Then goes to see her infected father, taking off her mask and gloves. She doesn’t contract the virus.
Break into Three: Dr. Ally Hextall’s sacrifice paid off. The MEV-1 vaccine goes into mass production; people will survive thanks to her, as A and B Stories cross.
Finale: (85-110) – Unfortunately, it can take up to a year to produce enough of the MEV-1 vaccine for everyone—and already 2.5 million in the US and 26 million in the rest of the world have died. At Day 131, doses arrive. Now it’s a ping-pong-ball lotto to see who gets the vaccination first.
Homeland Security busts Alan Krumwiede for conspiracy and securities fraud. Dr. Ally Hextall, like all heroes, keeps silent and keeps working.
The Emhoffs wait for their birthdays to be called on the TV lotto. Back in Feng’s village, Dr. Orantes is exchanged for some vaccines. When she learns later that her captors were given placebos, she rushes off to warn them. Montage of people being vaccinated with the MEV-1 cure. Mitch Emhoff makes a special shelter-in-place Prom Night for his daughter and Andrew to share. It’s his way of trying to create normalcy again. And symbolic of the human spirit surviving.
Final Image: In a perfect montage, we see “the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” as deforestation disrupts a colony of bats. A fruit bat eats a banana in a pigsty. A pig eats a piece of fallen banana. That pig is later delivered to the casino restaurant in Macau. The cook who’s preparing the food, touching the infected pig, wipes his virus-laden hands on his apron, and then meets Beth Emhoff for a photo opportunity. In the perfect bookend from the beginning, Day 1 starts as the mystery to the MEV-1 virus origination is revealed.