The Curve

Letterboxd members are gathering around Steven Soderbergh’s fictional pandemic drama Contagion, as a real disease has us keeping our distance from each other.

Rewatched this with a friend quarantine-style over Netflix Party tonight and it was really fun until it really wasn’t.” —⁠Patrick

Whether coming to Contagion for the first time, or rewatching it in light of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Steve Soderbergh’s 2011 drama, written by Scott Z. Burns, has been floating near the top of Letterboxd’s ‘Popular This Week’ list for the past couple of months. This week, with infection rates soaring and borders closing, it took the top spot.

The number of diary entries logged for Contagion between January 1 and March 19, showing a steep rise as major parts of the US, UK and Europe entered lock-down mode.
The number of diary entries logged for Contagion between January 1 and March 19, showing a steep rise as major parts of the US, UK and Europe entered lock-down mode.

Contagion was a solid, fairly well-received film that made decent box-office when it was released a decade ago. Critics noted its focus on the public servants working to identify and lock down the mystery virus, rather than sensational dramatics. (“Feels more like a PSA than a narrative,” observes Jeremiah.)

Jude Law’s Australian accent aside, the Contagion scenario represented a reality that experts had told Soderbergh and Burns the world should expect from a major new virus. Speaking to journalist Mike Ryan at the time of the film’s release, Soderbergh—who hasn’t so far commented on Contagion’s revival—said the most disturbing thing in researching the film was that “everyone you spoke to said ‘we’re due for a big one’.”

And here we are.

“Last year I reviewed Contagion and said the scariest part of watching it was that in the back of your head, you know that this could really happen. Well… fuck me.” —⁠Brett
Steven Soderbergh on the set of Contagion.
Steven Soderbergh on the set of Contagion.

Contagion’s resurgent popularity can be seen as a compliment to Burns’ and Soderbergh’s diligent foot-work. As Burns told Vulture last week: “There’s been some strange shit going on in my social media, where people I’ve never met have done everything from accuse me of being able to travel to the future, to having access to God, to being a member of the Illuminati.”

Burns has none of those gifts. What he does have, he told Vulture, is relationships with well-respected scientists, including epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant (who was on the team that managed to defeat smallpox) and Columbia University’s Dr. Ian Lipkin, who refused to take part “unless what we did was scientifically authentic and verifiable. So from the beginning, I knew that I had to stay within the lines of what was possible.”

Contagion makes real life less scary in the sense that Covid-19 is way less dangerous than the fictional virus. But it makes life more scary because Jude Law’s character is basically the President now.” —⁠Brian

Reading recent Letterboxd reviews, it’s easy to understand why we’re all watching Contagion right now: to figure out our current reality; to understand how Covid-19 has spread; to learn what our responsibilities are; to marvel at the sight of comedian Demetri Martin in a hazmat suit; and to put faces to the many thousands of health workers, scientists and government officials who will help us out of this crisis. (“It’s like competence porn,” says Iana.)

Jennifer Ehle puts herself in harm’s way in order to save humankind.
Jennifer Ehle puts herself in harm’s way in order to save humankind.

What’s interesting in more recent reviews is the shift in attitudes towards the film’s style and structure. When Contagion was first released, audiences and critics often pushed against the clinical plotting, not to mention Soderbergh’s plainly brutal camera technique—isolating characters in the frame; jump-cuts to quickly advance a character’s fate. Whereas now, it’s exactly this hyper-realism that’s giving us, if not comfort, then at least the dose of frankness we need to be able to stick to our necessarily isolated lifestyles, and avoid the mistakes made in the movie (there’s plenty of food to go round, yo—no need to ransack the local grocery store).

“How this movie has a 3.3 here baffles me. This is a 4.1—a non-stop, ‘who’s-who-of-Hollywood’ pulse-pounder that worked even before every scene became highly relevant to our pandemic. Its filmmaking feels like a virus; it moves fast and exponentially—without empathy or hand-holding. Characters appear and disappear like tweets—here one moment, dead the next. Wash your hands.” —⁠Aneesh Chaganty

Indeed, Burns told Slate last week, “one of the beautiful things I learned while doing my research is what public health really means. What I came to understand it to be was an obligation we have to each other.

Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle compare Letterboxd diaries.
Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle compare Letterboxd diaries.

“Until we have a pharmaceutically generated or a scientifically generated cure, we are the cure. We can be the cure. It means listening to public health officials and being conscious of your obligation to your fellow humans.”

But Letterboxd reviewer Jordan needs Contagion’s popularity to settle down now. “I need people to stop reviewing this movie. This is the social media platform I’m using to escape thinking about the coronavirus.”

For anyone else feeling like Jordan, our latest Letterboxd Showdown focuses on feel-good films. Submit your list of ten favorite uplifting movies by tagging it showdown:feelgood and we’ll meet you in a fortnight for a synchronized viewing of the most-mentioned film.


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