Filming fears: from ‘Contagion’ (2011) to ‘Greenland’ (2020)
By Chris Rogers, May 22 2021 05:45PM
Two films, made ten years apart. Each is from the disaster genre and as such they share tropes and details: rising disquiet, mass panic, societal breakdown, military involvement, struggling officialdom and the individual odyssey. Both, too, have a broadly understated tone and a relevance for today, even if their subjects are different. I saw them for the first time this week and was struck by both.
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, written by Scott Z. Burns, is a decade old, a technical and attitudinal lifetime in the film industry and indeed the wider culture yet its exploration of the discovery, impact and outcome of a worldwide pandemic originating in the Far East has an obvious significance as I type this in late May 2021. In fact the sheer degree of specificity in that context is shocking – discussion of the disease’s R number and mortality rate, countermeasures including “social distancing” and the search for, timescale to approve and challenges of supplying a vaccine, this last including the haves and the have-nots. The tension between information from the authorities versus that from an internet conspiracy theorist is also remarkably present for contemporary viewers. Firm emphasis on the trials of those in power and especially the global scientific effort to halt the spread finds a sympathetic audience in light of recent events, the stripped-down quality of dedication and desperation further resonates.
Structurally there is a measured use of flashback in a way that enhances the story, not least at the very end, and the message is cautiously optimistic even if a handshake is presented as a gesture both positive and negative. All of this is well caught by an impressive cast deployed in unshowy and realistic fashion that extends the approach used in, say, Outbreak (1995). Their characters’ fates are revealed in the same way.
Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland, written by Chris Sparling, had to sacrifice its theatrical release due to the current real-world pandemic, providing one link to the earlier film. Others arise from the slow unfolding of its own fictional catastrophe, the government’s attempts to respond and the results of both. Differentially, though, the crisis itself – the impact of a “planet-killer” comet – cannot be ameliorated and the focus here is squarely on a single family and their journey. This is winningly mounted and intensified in early scenes by a relentless imminence that is drip-fed through television news bulletins, radio broadcasts and – initially and most effectively – ‘Presidential alert system’ messages on mobile phones. Impressively the screenplay resists connecting the head of the family with the government in any way, explaining his bemusement at being selected for safeguarding and rendering him a true everyman during what follows.
This first act culminates in a powerful sequence at a military air base that smartly inverts an equivalent in World War Z (2013) with humans, very much alive, as the enemy horde. Plot twists grow wholly believably from this to set up the second act in which, inevitably, the family members are separated. Indeed what happens to the wife and son afterwards is genuinely shocking within the context of what is still a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster and surprisingly affectingly drawn by the cast, whilst the father’s quest is tainted by his own atavism. An un-signposted cameo brings another homely dimension.
Disasters do happen, and we are living through one. Fictionalised versions – no matter how unlikely – help us anticipate before the fact and analyse afterwards. Stay safe.
Chris's first book examines the career and works of British architect Michael Pearson, the third generation to head the practice founded by his grandfather in 1904. Pearson's presidency of the Architectural Association and his pioneering and prescient Burne House building are covered.
"Throws light on significant achievements"
– Patrick Duerden, Practice Director, Donald Insall
Black Dog Publishing, 2010
ISBN 978 1 906155 73 5
Become an architectural detective with Chris's second book, investigating the styles of a thousand years of building in the world's most visited city from the middle ages to the present day. Illustrated and with photographs, maps and addresses, also included are a list of resources and a two-part introduction.
"A little gem"
– Terry Philpot, Tablet
Ivy Press, 2016 with Larousse (French edition) and Akal (Spanish)
ISBN 978 1 78240 406 4
Chris's third book - a publisher's best-seller - reveals the hidden gems as well as the iconic landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village. Covering the West End, City and Docklands, the book follows the same format as How to Read Paris.
– Don Brown, The London Society
Ivy Press, 2017
ISBN 978 1 782404 52 1
Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is illustrated with its own collage-style spread.
Ivy Press, 2018
ISBN 978 1 782405 44 3
Commissioned from Chris by the Chief Magistrate for England & Wales to mark the closure of Bow Street Magistrates' Court, this pamphlet celebrates the world-famous institution and its final home. It was given exclusively to guests at a commemorative reception.
"I really like both the research behind it, and its clarity and accessibility"
– Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, Her
Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service
Private press, 2006
The Twentieth Century Society’s new peer-reviewed Journal on commercial architecture in Britain since the 1920s includes Chris’s piece on Fitzroy Robinson's pioneering atrium buildings in the City of London. The piece is founded in original research including archive imagery, interviews and site visits.
Twentieth Century Society, 2020
ISBN 978 0 955668 76 0