Contagion, like Steven Soderbergh's earlier Traffic (Germany/US 2000), maintains a dynamic - one might even say dialectical - relationship between space and time. Just as Traffic works as a realist mapping of social space, charting the transnational drug trade and the limits to politics over the US-Mexico border, so Contagion does more than just follow an epidemic. It appears to be a study in global circulation, picturing the spread of the disease, press conferences, international and multinational video conferences and, ultimately, global circuits of capital in the form of commodity shipments earlier in the film and vaccine shipments later on. Traffic and Contagion can therefore be thought of as bookends to the first decade of the twenty-first century, with the former imagining border concerns that fell out of public notice after 11 September 2001, and the latter - focused, as it is, on the circulation of disease, vaccine, rumour and speculation - following on the heels of the fallout from another type of speculation, the 2008 financial crisis. While Traffic suggests that everyone, drug lords and officials alike, is corrupt or corruptible (save, perhaps, for Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro)), Contagion suggests that 'in a world gone catastrophically wrong, the only folks to be trusted are government officials' (Clover 8). However, the complicity of government officials in the film seems to have little to do with what the circulation of disease renders visible.
In contrast to other contemporary apocalyptic and disaster films (for a review of a number of global pandemic films, see Maio), such as 2012 (Emmerich US 2009), Contagion rarely gives in to imagining the globe from the outside or above. Instead, the narrative tends to follow characters and end up in locations that are intimately related to the disease itself. Even the grandest shots of treatment centres, food lines or vaccination centres are only as wide or as long as a hockey arena or a public square could allow. The film works from within government agencies, families and villages, much like Traffic, elaborating the relation between space and time in two major zones: the US and Hong Kong/ China. Indeed, the dividing line between the two zones can be drawn between [End Page 119] the politics of the family and the politics of the village - Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) calls his wife to warn her to leave Chicago before the city is quarantined, while Sun Feng (Chin Han) takes a world health official, Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), hostage in order to ransom her for the vaccine to save his village.
The film works through a variety of explanations for the breakout before positing a final narrative explanation. The foremost explanation is a moral one, with patient zero, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), being punished by the disease for her extra-marital affair. Indeed, we only get a brief shot of the man in Chicago she sleeps with and thus kills through the spread of MEV-1 (Meningoencephalitis Virus One). This narrative plays itself out between her step-daughter, Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and husband, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon). Jory's father protectively keeps her in the house throughout the majority of the film, sheltering her from the disease and the outside world. Another narrative - conspiracy - is touted by blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who traces responses to the disease back to the financial relationship between corporate interests, the US government and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), even while he is paid off and lies about the effectiveness of forsythia, a homeopathic treatment described as a cure for the contagion.
Perhaps the strongest force in Contagion, though not necessarily as an explanation for the disease, is the enlightenment narrative of progress implied at the CDC as scientists store the cured MEV-1 alongside H1N1 and SARS and eight to ten other disease storage vats. In the film, this type of progress is brought about largely by rogues: Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) does not follow orders to destroy his attempts to grow the virus - a necessary step in curing the disease - and Dr...