Contagion (2011) Movie Ending Explained: Contagion, written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was critically acclaimed for offering a realistic spin on the possibility of a 21st-century pandemic. The hyperlink drama chronicles how the ensuing pandemonium brings the best and worst out of human nature. Inspired by the real-life outbreak of SARS (between 2002 and 2004) and the 2009 swine flu pandemic, Contagion was built as an intriguing ‘what-if’ thought experiment. Moreover, it has a phenomenal ensemble cast (including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Jude Law) to compellingly dramatize this globe-trotting narrative. 

But nearly a decade after its release, Contagion became an unexpectedly prescient film as it gained renewed popularity due to the devastating effects of the global Covid pandemic. Cinephiles and casual viewers alike started to find many parallels between Scott Burns’ screenplay (which was written with the inputs of renowned epidemiologists) and our panic, anxiety-ridden everyday lives. When a doctor character in the movie says, “Right now our best defense is social distancing,” you truly feel what that character means rather than perceive it as a to-do proposition in a distant scientific possibility. While watching Contagion in 2011, I saw the blogger Alan’s shenanigans as unbelievable, something that belongs in a satire. But watching it during the pandemic, I deeply felt Alan is the film’s most believable yet terrifying character.

Without further ado, let’s explore what unfolds in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) and how a virus outbreak impacts the human body and precipitates societal collapse. Spoilers Ahead.

Contagion (2011) Plot Explained:

Disease and Death

Contagion opens with American PR Executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home to Minneapolis, Minnesota, from her Hong Kong business trip. During the Chicago layover, it’s hinted that she had a rendezvous with her lover, John Neal. Beth looks tired and sick, and the screen says ‘Day 2.’ It can only mean that she is one of the carriers of the deadly virus, perhaps from Hong Kong. On the same day, a young man in Kowloon, Hong Kong, a young woman in London, England, and a middle-aged Japanese colleague of Beth in Tokyo are all afflicted by a virus and exhibit the same symptoms as Beth.

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The young woman dies in her hotel room. Both the young man from Hong Kong and the Japanese man also perish – the latter’s seizure is caught in a mobile camera, which goes ‘viral’ on the internet. Beth is back at her suburban home in Minneapolis. She greets her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and hugs her little son, Clark. On day 3, Clark has a fever and cough, and his stepdad Mitch picks him up from school. On day 4, Beth feels disoriented. She falls down and has a seizure, and Mitch immediately takes her to the hospital. A few minutes later, Mitch receives the baffling news that his wife has passed away. As Mitch returns home, he gets a panicked phone call from the caretaker. By the time he reaches there, Clark is also dead. 

How Contagious Is the Virus?

On Day 5, at World Health Organization headquarters, epidemiologist Dr. Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard) discusses the cluster of reported viral outbreaks in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London with WHO officials. Back in America, Beth’s lover, John from Illinois Chicago, has a seizure, and the paramedics take him away. While performing an autopsy on Beth, it becomes apparent that it needs to be reported to the CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. CDC’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) sends Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer Dr. Eric Mears (Kate Winslet) to the wintry Minneapolis to trace the people who have had contact with Beth and enforce quarantine. Through Dr. Mears, we gain some smartly written expository information on the virus and its modes of infection. 

Dr. Mears briefs the Minnesota Department of Health officials based on the information they have so far: 1) the virus spreads through respiratory droplets, 2) a possible fomite transmission – refers to inanimate objects or surfaces that carry the infectious agents. But they need to determine R-naught – a term to indicate how contagious an infectious disease can be. In other words, it’s an indicator to find the average number of secondary infections from one infected individual. 

Moreover, the R-naught value becomes significant when a larger population is vulnerable to the disease. So, according to Dr. Mears, determining the transmissibility and the susceptibility of the virus on the global population is the crucial first step. Another alarming aspect of this novel virus is its incubation period (the time between exposure to the virus and the beginning of the disease’s symptoms). This fictitious virus has a very low incubation period of 72 hours (coronavirus had an incubation period of 5-6 days. 

What do the Scientists Learn from the Genetic Material of the Virus?

Mitch is isolated but looks like he has natural immunity to the virus. Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), his teenage daughter from the first marriage, comes to visit her dad and wants to be with him. On day 7, Dr. Cheever is visited by the officials from the Department of Homeland Security. Since the virus originated from a foreign country, there’s the usual concern over national security and whether the virus was a result of weaponization. Meanwhile, Dr. Mears conducts her investigation in Minneapolis, visiting the company where Beth worked. Dr. Mears hears about a worker who picked up Beth’s documents after her trip. By the time they learn about this and try to isolate him, the ailing man has traveled in a public bus, already setting off a new cluster. 

At the CDC laboratory, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) sequences the virus to determine its origin, which contains genetic material from both pigs and bats. While briefing Dr. Cheever, she says, “Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.” And as the virus attaches to the human host, it is rapidly mutating. Moreover, considering how dangerous the pathogen is, Dr. Cheever asks Dr. Hextall to conduct the research only at the CDC’s lab with a higher biosafety level (BSL-4).  Subsequently, Dr. Hextall asks the researcher, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) at the University of San Francisco to destroy his virus samples. Dr. Sussman protests, saying limiting the research to government-run BSL-4 labs will impede their progress in discovering a viable cell culture to grow the newly identified virus. 

Can the Scientists Find a Cure?

Conspiracy theorist, freelance journalist, and blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is cooking up his own theories about the virus. Mixing a few facts with blatant lies, he serves clickbait conspiracy theories to his loyal followers. Epidemiologist Dr. Leonara Orantes travels to Hong Kong to determine the virus’ origin and the patient zero. All the individuals we have seen as the narrative opens, including Beth Emhoff, have visited a casino in Hong Kong. Hence, the casino is most probably the ground zero. 

As the cases keep rising across the world, and the mortality rate is higher at 25 percent, Dr. Sussman violates the CDC order to destroy his samples. Fortunately, he develops a usable cell culture to grow the virus, though he had worked at a BSL-3 lab. Dr. Sussman also turns out to be a generous man. He didn’t take what he did to big pharma, where he could have made a lot of money. 

On day 12, the virus is officially addressed as MEV-1, and the news of Dr. Sussman’s findings reaches the public. Nevertheless, it will be weeks or months till a vaccine is developed. In the meantime, Alan is busy infecting his two million unique visitors with paranoia. He meets a hedge-fund guy who wants Alan to analyze and predict opportunities where they can profit from the disease. Alan speaks of forsythia, a homeopathic remedy for the virus. Mitch is finally sent back home since it becomes clear he is immune to the virus. However, there’s no certainty that his daughter Jory is also immune like him. Therefore, Mitch becomes overprotective, allowing no outside contact for Jory, including her boyfriend.

Leonara’s Quest to Find the Patient Zero

On Day 14, Dr. Mears, who has worked round the clock in Minnesota, wakes up feeling sick. In Hong Kong, Dr. Leonara Orantes is still going through the casino security videotapes to establish the mode of transmission and the index patient. Soon, a government official named Sun Feng (Chin Han) kidnaps Dr. Leonara. He takes her to his village (mostly populated with women and kids), which is heavily impacted by the virus. Sun has decided to use Dr. Leonara as leverage to make the WHO officials provide their village with the vaccines at the earliest. Meanwhile, Dr. Cheever does his best to evacuate Dr. Mears from Minnesota as the state is overflowing with patients. But Admiral Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston) of Homeland Security states they don’t have the resources and hints Dr. Mears is not the priority now. 

Alan claims to have got the virus. He documents himself taking the ‘miracle drug’ Forsythia. Later, he even vows that the drug cured him. Dr. Cheever speaks to his wife, Aubrey (Sanaa Lathan), about feeling guilty for sending Dr. Mears. He also slyly warns her to get out of Chicago immediately and travel to Atlanta. As the infected people are in the millions, everyone is susceptible to fear and panic, including the knowledgeable doctor. Aubrey repeats what her husband said to her to a close friend. It naturally sets off a chain reaction.

Contagion (2011) Explained
A still from Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011)

How does Alan Thrive by Playing with People’s Fear and Paranoia?

On Day 18, the trepidation is at higher levels as masked people seeking forsythia violently break into a pharmacy. There’s widespread looting, and people overwhelm the state border, attempting to get out to ‘somewhere safe.’ Dr. Mears dies and is buried at a mass grave with the other deceased MEV-1 patients. As the existing social system gradually collapses, people turn against the government and institutions. Moreover, charlatans like Alan peddle their own truths and brand everything else as lies. Alan speaks of Forsythia in a news debate with Dr. Cheever and accuses of a conspiratorial involvement between WHO and big pharma. Dr. Cheever claims there’s not yet any scientific evidence of a specific drug curing MEV-1. 

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This is when Alan uses his vital weapon, calling Dr. Cheever disingenuous. He points to a Facebook post attributed to Dr. Cheever about the quarantine of Chicago many hours before it was officially announced. Dr. Cheever’s discrete effort to save his wife results in making him look dishonest. Naturally, by Alan’s logic, all-powerful people like Dr. Cheever misinform the public and only protect their loved ones. 

Contagion (2011) Movie Ending Explained:

Who Finds the Vaccine for MEV-1 Virus?

Dr. Hextall finds that the virus has mutated, and its R-naught value from two has shifted to four. At least one in twelve people will be infected by the virus. The mortality rate is still between 25 and 30 percent. All the public places look deserted, and people stand in long queues to receive their food supply. Dr. Hextall develops a vaccine. The doctor injects herself before moving to the human trials, which would take weeks. Subsequently, Dr. Hextall visits her infected father, and the MEV-1 virus doesn’t affect her. As the vaccine is declared a success, and produced in mass numbers, more than four months have passed since the virus’ inception. 

Alan meets with the hedge-fund guy again, who says there’s no proof of Forsythia working on MEV-1 patients. He keeps preaching how the big pharma and governments suppress the truth and make loads of money out of widespread illness. Now Alan has 12 million ‘unique visitors,’ who may not take the government’s vaccine if he says so. But it’s too late for Alan as the hedge-fund guy is wearing a wire. Alan is arrested for securities fraud and conspiracy. It becomes clear that he faked his illness to profit off of Forsythia (made $4.5 million). Interestingly, Alan’s followers bail him out.  

Did Sun Feng’s Village Receive the Vaccines?

Over 26 million people have died worldwide by the time the CDC awards the vaccines to Americans by lottery based on their birthdates. The lottery is announced every 144 days. Dr. Leonara Orantes is released from Sun Feng’s village as the WHO officials provide them with the vaccines. Later, Dr. Leonara learns that the vaccines Sun received were only placebos. Since there have been many abductions similar to Dr. Leonara’s across the world, the officials think of this as the only solution. But Dr. Leonara leaves the airport, probably to warn Sun Feng and the villagers. When Jory’s boyfriend receives a vaccine, Mitch finally relents and stages a ‘Prom Night’ for his daughter at home. Mitch checks the photos from his wife’s digital camera, still grieving over his loss. 

What Led to the “Day 1”?

In the epilogue, we finally get to the sequence of events where the virus evolved within a non-human host (bat and pig) before hopping into the human host. There’s deforestation in China’s rainforest. As an AIMM (the logging company Beth Emhoff worked for) bulldozer clears a tree, nesting bats fly off. One of the bats stops to eat a banana. Later, the bat finds shelter in a pig farm and drops a piece of banana that is consumed by the pig. The virus is perhaps a result of this cross. The pig is slaughtered and prepared by a chef in the casino. When a guest asks to meet the chef without washing his hands, the chef shakes the hands of the female guest – Beth Emhoff – and poses for a photo. This simple moment is ‘Day 1,’ and the screen fades to black with this haunting reveal. 

Contagion (2011) Themes Explained:

Environmental Destruction

Though the images of deforestation appear for a few seconds in Contagion, it offers an impactful commentary on how the human-dominated ecosystem, through the destruction of the environment, is at the crux of every disease outbreak. The sequence of bats flying out of their forest habitat and setting off the chain that creates the virus is similar to the Malaysia Nipah virus outbreak (1998-1999). Humankind’s rapid destruction of wildlife habitats has pushed scientists from various fields to study the emerging pathogens and possible disease hotspots that could induce large-scale outbreaks. When Contagion (2011) was made, it seemed to pose an intriguing ‘what if.’ Now, having faced one devastating pandemic, combined with the persisting issues of climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, it feels like more worst-case scenarios are awaiting us. As the experts say, the next pandemic is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if.’

Misinformation and Mass Hysteria

In Contagion, Dr. Cheever calls out Alan for spreading something that’s far more dangerous than the disease. We all might have experienced how misinformation or bad information spreads faster than the virus. Alan Krumwiede is just one of the many online con artists who crave the spotlight by selling their half-baked theories. There’s a pinch of truth to these quacks’ falsehood, which is essential to circulate the paranoia and fear-infested information. Even reasonable people could be infected by the misinformation that Alan spreads. Of course, the authorities and the scientific community are, by design, not totally transparent during such a crisis. Yet, by creating mass hysteria and promoting hearsay, some people do stand to gain a lot. And the scariest thing about Alan is the power he wields over many. 

Resilience and Hope

The highly contagious nature of the virus itself imparts a profound distrust of everyone except our family. So, it’s no wonder misinformation further stokes our distrust in people. At the same time, Contagion (2011) also depicts the bravery of the first responders, law enforcement officials, and bureaucrats. Kate Winslet’s Dr. Mears is the film’s most memorable character, as even when she is down with the disease and struggling to breathe, her basic human decency is never lost. People like Dr. Mears, Dr. Leonara, Dr. Hextall, and Dr. Ian Sussman are the beacon of hope amidst all the outrage and societal breakdown. 

Our worst collective impulses are the reason behind such widespread destruction. Yet our hope lies in believing in the best of humanity. Without the resilience, courage, and hope of many, the barrier created by the virus couldn’t have been shattered. 

Read More: Shin Godzilla (2016) Movie Ending Explained: Did ‘Operation Yashiori’ Succeed?

Contagion (2011) Movie External Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd
Contagion (2011) Movie Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Lawrence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, and Elliott Gould
Where to watch Contagion

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