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Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is heading back to Minneapolis after stopping at Chicago for a layover after a trip to Hong Kong, and begins to exhibit symptoms of a highly contagious disease. Soon afterwards, several other individuals in Hong Kong begin to exhibit the same symptoms. Upon returning to her husband, Mitch (Damon) and their two children, Beth collapses and is rushed to the hospital, while across the world, thousands of people begin to die from the same symptoms.
The responsibility of identifying and treating the outbreak falls to the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control, with several global leaders in the field of contagious diseases researching the virus, including Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne), Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard). Meanwhile, in Washington, a conspiracy blogger named Alan Krumwiede (Law) searches for answers, while a fellow doctor named Sussman (Elliot Gould) tries to identify the virus.
The film was critically praised for its realistic depiction of a contagious disease, and grossed $73 million dollars at the U.S. box office.
- Abandoned Hospital: Not just because of MEV-1, but because nurses were on strike during the outbreak.
- Actor Allusion: Gwyneth Paltrow gets her head cut off yet again. Actually, she gets her scalp peeled back, but same difference.
- Aerith and Bob: The female characters in the film are named Beth, Jordan, Erin, Ally, Aubrey... and Leonora.
- All of Them: During the autopsy on Patient Zero, the moment they take a look at what's left of her brain.
Younger Pathologist: (backing away) "You want me to call somebody?"
- All-Star Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard all play large roles. On top of that, there's Demetri Martin, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes, Enrico Colantoni and Elliot Gould.
- An Aesop: The worst thing we have to fear is fear itself. In a crisis; don't panic, stay rational, trust the professionals, and don't look for scapegoats.
- And always wash your hands.
- Anyone Can Die: Aside from Mitch Emhoff (the only person in the film who shows an immunity to the virus), everyone else in the film is susceptible, and many people die, including Beth Emhoff and her son, Dr. Mears, and millions of other people across the planet.
- As Himself: Dr. Sanjay Gupta cameos in an interview with Dr. Cheever.
- Attention Whore: Krumwiede, who claims he'll do anything to get the right scoop, and turns out to have been faking effective treatment so he can make lots of money.
- Australian Accent: Jude Law attempts one as Alan Krumwiede. It's not very good.
- Badass Bookworm: Most of the scientists, who go above and beyond (even working while afflicted with the virus, in some cases) to research a vaccine.
- Billing Displacement: Gwyneth Paltrow, who retains the first-billed credit in the film, yet only appears for 10 minutes at the beginning, in some photos, and (via flashback) the final ten seconds of the film.
- Bittersweet Ending: Mitch, his daughter Jordan, and Andrew, the boy she liked, manage to survive, but Beth was Patient Zero, and her son, Dr. Mears, and a lot of other people paid for it, in addition to a blogger stirring up a shitstorm over the vaccines and possibly killing many more.
- The Brigadier: The Rear Admiral who heads the department of Homeland Security, played by Bryan Cranston. He's only brought in after the virus kills a CIA outpost, but nonetheless, tries to help.
- Chekhov's Gun: Midway through the film, Dr. Orantes reviews the security footage taken at the casino where Beth was believed to have contracted the virus, and finds that she interacted with (and took pictures of) several people during a party (but can't identify which one would have had the virus). Later on, Mitch finds her camera, and cries as he goes through the pictures, stopping at a picture Beth took with the casino's chef. In the final scene, a flashback to Day 1, we see how the virus was transmitted - it was carried from an infected bat to a pig, which was subsequently sold to the casino and transmitted to the chef, who transmitted it to Beth when they shook hands.
- Convulsive Seizures: What happens shortly before you die of the virus.
- Creator Cameo: Director Steven Soderbergh voices John Neal, the man Beth was seeing in China, at the beginning.
- Darkest Hour: Mears is dead, the virus' infection rate is increasing, no one has any answers, tens of millions have died, cities are deserted and the WHO or CDC realizes that it will take months to develop a viable vaccine and inoculate the population... and then Dr. Hextall discovers that one of her vaccine samples works.
- Dead Star Walking: Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff.
- Death by Cameo: Gwyneth Paltrow, who dies about five minutes into the film, though she appears occasionally in flashback sequences.
- Decoy Protagonist: Dr. Mears is set up as a potential hero early on in the film. Then she gets sick and disappears for a chunk of time, only to be revisited as she tries (in vain) to give a blanket to a fellow patient just before she dies.
- Dies Wide Open: As evidenced by the autopsy, Beth died this way.
- Disaster Movie: The director clearly stated he was inspired by movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Oddly, no real scenes of horrific ruin or collapse are shown, choosing to focus on personal dramas.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Beth cheated on her husband while in Chicago (on her way home from Hong Kong), and ends up not only dying from a deadly virus, but also killing the man she cheated with (who subsequently infected Chicago), her son, the Eastern Coast of America, and 26 million people. She is subsequently referred to as "Patient Zero".
- Due to the Dead: Subverted; despite Mitch and Beth's mother wanting a proper burial, the local funeral home refuses to bury Beth on the basis that they may get infected with the virus as well.
- Expy: Krumwiede seems to be based on infamous embezzler and writer Kevin Trudeau, who's become controversial for his claims of having the cures for cancer and other diseases. And like Krumwiede, he's Only in It For the Money.
- Flower Motif: Whenever there is personal loss or tragedy, look for the yellow flowers.
- Foreshadowing: If Krumwiedehas supposedly been "cured" of the virus by taking Forsythia, why does he still walk around in a jury-rigged hazmat suit for most of the film? And why doesn't he give Forsythia to the female reporter from the beginning of the film? And what's with the "Prophet / Profit" signs?
- For Inconvenience Press One: Mitch hears several gunshots and sees a group of burglars exiting the house across from his, so he calls 911. Problem is, they're so overburdened that the system has been replaced with an automated helpline which is primarily designed to aid people in dealing with the outbreak, rather than deal with common crime.
- For Want of a Nail: The end sequence shows the chain of events that caused the pandemic. If any one of those links had been broken, it might never have happened.
- Ghost City: San Francisco and Hong Kong are shown to be mostly deserted.
- Gory Discretion Shot: An early scene has a pair of doctors peeling Beth's scalp up over her decayed face, with the inside of her scalp clearly visible, and cutting her skull open to take a look inside (with audible "sloshing" sound effects). Contagion is a PG-13 film, which makes it all the more shocking.
- Green Aesop: The virus is unleashed upon the world by bulldozing a forest.
- Hanlon's Razor: Krumwiede exploits this trope by nitpicking everything the government is doing about the virus and portraying it as the result of massive conspiracies. In reality, the government is just working as quickly and efficiently as it can under the circumstances.
- Heroic BSOD: Surprisingly averted for most of the movie by Mitch, until the very end, when he finds his wife's camera and looks at her final photographs.
- Heroic Sacrifice:
- Several doctors, contracting the disease by saving others from it and in many cases dying from it themselves. The one who used the untested vaccine on herself first survives, however.
- Cheever giving his dose of the vaccine to his friend's son instead of himself as a result of feeling bad for his mistake earlier in the film.
- The Immune: Mitch Emhoff. There are a few others, but offscreen.
- Incurable Cough of Death: The Movie.
- Infant Immortality: Averted with Clark's death (and the presumable deaths of many other children) early in the movie, but played straight with Jordan and Andrew surviving. At the very least, they were older.
- It Got Worse: The first sign of this is when Dr. Mears dies from the virus.
- Justified Criminal: Despite living in a deserted neighbourhood (with only a handful of other residents left), Mitch never takes anything more than a rifle from his neighbour's house to protect himself and Jordan. Any time he is given the chance to steal, he's either thwarted (the supermarket, which was already looted and breaking out into chaos) or he resists temptation (the looting at the FEMA food drop point).
- Karma Houdini: Alan Krumwiede, who fakes being sick in order to promote a drug that supposedly (but doesn't) cures the disease, and profits big time from it. He's arrested by Homeland Security, but is bailed out by his online followers and encourages more people to not vaccinate. It's unclear whether he'll meet justice or not after the film's events.
- Laser-Guided Karma: A bulldozer owned by AIMM outside Hong Kong destroys a forested area so it can be developed. This causes a bat to move to a barn where it infects a pig with the disease. The pig is slaughtered and taken to a kitchen, and while a cook prepares it, he is interrupted to meet a business woman and shakes her hand, causing her to become Patient Zero. The important woman, of course, works for AIMM.
- The Load: Despite going to stay with her Dad to provide him with emotional support, Jory is a disgruntled teenage girl. However, after all he's been through, having to focus on her likely kept Mitch emotionally stable.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: With an all-star cast, natch.
- Manipulative Bastard: Krumwiede for using his blog to convince others to buy a drug that doesn't work.
- Mega Corp: AIMM, the company Beth works for and whose logo looms in several scenes. While not in any way purposely malevolent, the company's deforestation of the area the first infected bat was residing in was what caused it to spread the infection.
- New Media Are Evil: Krumwiede and his blog are the focus of this. One doctor, feverishly working on attempts to find possible vaccination methods while Krumwiede harasses him, calls his blog "graffiti with punctuation", and he blames corporations and government organizations at every chance he can get. This increases when Krumwiede turns out as a massive internet celebrity with a major amount of influence on the public's opinions on the virus and the cure... namely, by encouraging people to look into alternative treatments and stirring up paranoia over the vaccine.
- Nice to the Waiter: Cheever's introduction is his conversation with one of the CDC janitors about getting help for the janitor's young son for a ADHD diagnosis. And of course, giving the janitor's son Cheever's assigned vaccination instead.
- No FEMA Response: Averted. The CDC and FEMA really get rolling when they realize how bad the disease has become, but their efforts are constantly constrained by both time, limited supplies, a panicking public, government distrust, and hospitals going on strike.
- Oh Crap:
Older Pathologist: Oh my God.
- Overprotective Dad: Mitch Emhoff is a mild version, keeping his daughter from meeting the boy she likes even though neither of them are sick. Even though there's a chance she's immune as he is, he's not going to take it. When the boy is vaccinated, he immediately makes up for it by setting up a personal prom night just for them.
- Patient Zero: At the end, the chain of events leading to Beth and the other known first cases getting infected is shown.
- The Plague
- Professor Guinea Pig: One of the CDC scientists injects herself with an experimental vaccine for the virus. It works.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: All the main authority figures are doing their best, in spite of constant criticism from Alan Krumwiede that they are in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies. However, several doctors are forced to override orders when they get in their way, showing that the system isn't perfect.
- Red Right Hand: Jude Law's character is given a snaggletooth to foreshadow the revelation that he's a crook and a liar.
- The Reveal: In the last scene, we find out how Beth contracted the virus.
- Science Hero: Reconstructed.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right: Sussman goes against orders to destroy his research in order to successfully create it in a lab. Hextall injects herself with the untested but viable vaccine sample, since the proper procedure would have taken nearly twice as long to get results. It works.
- Sex Is Evil: The film starts with Beth talking on the phone with a man she's just been unfaithful with. This connects the disease to sex in two ways: as a Red Herring and as Guilt By Association. At first, the scientists don't know what kind of disease it is, so sexually transmitted is one of the options they're investigating. Also, a viewer with a certain kind of mindset could feel compelled to feel that her adultery caused the disease on a spiritual level: that it was fate or God's punishment for wickedness.
- Shout-Out: When talking with government officials in Minnesota, one of them notes that a plastic shark would cause more panic than a sidenote about a virus... then go on to screw things up by complaining that causing a panic now would disrupt shopping sales.
- Shown Their Work: The film is a relatively scientifically accurate portrayal of a pandemic:
- The fictional MEV-1 virus is based on the real life Nipah virus (which does cause pneumonia-like symptoms and seizures).
- The film's portrayal on how the pandemic got started: "The wrong bat met the wrong pig", is actually how epidemiologists theorized the original 1999 Malaysia outbreak got started (a infected bat dropped a piece of half-chewed fruit into a pig pen, the pig ate the bat-saliva-laced fruit and got infected, and passed the disease to humans who butchered the pig).
- The molecular biology of the virus: genome size, number of genes, even identifable splice sites from different strains of the virus (bat vs. pig) pretty much match up with how viruses work in the Real World. Its inability to replicate in standard cell culture is also a feature of some Real World Viruses, such as Hepatitis-C.
- The vaccine development. Rhesus macaques are one of the most common test animals for vaccine work, because their immune systems are extremely similar to that of humans, much more so than rabbits, rats or other experimental animals. The vaccine scenes suffer only from Hollywood Compression (see below).
- The plot-line about the vaccine scare? A Shout-Out to the MMR vaccine scare in which one 'researcher' fabricated results and caused massive distrust of both that particular vaccine and all others just to get rich. Said actions also went unpunished, and caused many deaths, though not as many as in the movie.
- MEV-1 getting stored next to Smallpox and samples of other well-known samples that caused an outbreak. It does exist, if only on a heavier security level than the one shown.
- Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Trailer: Bryan Cranston has a fairly substantial role as a Rear Admiral with the Department of Homeland Security (and was already a star thanks to his work on Breaking Bad), yet is nowhere to be seen in the marketing.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: "Merry Christmas", the theme that plays when Mears dies and her body is placed in a mass grave while the other CDC technician discusses ordering more body bags from Canada, is oddly uplifting.
- Stockholm Syndrome: Dr. Orantes is kidnapped and held hostage to ensure that a large group of uninfected people will get a cure for the virus. However, when the film switches back to her story later in the film, the audience sees that she seems to be working as a schoolteacher and genuinely cares for the children in the village. Then she learns that the vaccines given for her release were fake, and runs off to warn them at the end.
- Tracking Shot: When Krumwiede runs through a park (with police and CDC officials in pursuit) after discovering his hedge fund broker was wearing a wire and tipped off the authorities.
- Trailers Always Spoil: Dr. Mears, sounding sick, calling the hotel staff and asking for the names of everyone who cleaned the room she was sitting in.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Sun Feng wanted to protect the remaining people in his village from the virus. For him, this meant kidnapping Dr. Orantes and taking her to his village for over a hundred days.
- Water Source Tampering: Inverted when the government wants to know if dumping the cure in the water supply will suffice as a quick means of curing everyone. Dr Cheever has to patiently explain that the cure would be too diluted to be effective.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: After being kidnapped by a Chinese epidemiologist, Dr. Orantes is rescued, then runs through an airport and is never seen again.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Everyone's response to Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) abusing his power and position at the CDC to warn his wife to leave Chicago before the quarantine went into effect. It's effectively used by Krumwiede to instill distrust in the government.
- Withholding the Cure: While this doesn't happen, some believe that it does -- it is one of the destructive rumors that fly around on the internet, and it feeds the paranoia of certain characters. This is used by Alan, who then directs bloggers to get the drug Forsythia.
- Your Cheating Heart: Beth Emhoff, who cheated on her husband with a former lover who lived in Chicago, unwittingly spreading the virus to the Midwest.