September 11, 2011
Review - " Contagion " - (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion
Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth
Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Chin Han, John
Hawkes, Sanaa Lathan
Director Steven Soderbergh gives us a fast-paced and
grim scenario of a nasty but all-too-possible avian flu was
released and spread through the environment. There are
about six strands of plot running through the scenario,
each with a recognizable actor playing the main character.
In spite of the presence of major stars Soderbergh gives us
the confidence that he is not tweaking the film to
exaggerate the drama or excitement. Even without the
usual tropes of science fiction, this is an excellent science
fiction techno thriller.
Contagion begins with a cough. Beth Emhoff (played by
Gwyneth Paltrow) is in an airport calling on her cell phone
talking to a man, not her husband, about their recent sex.
Beth does not know it but she is dying. And she is killing
perhaps thousands who touch what she has touched. And
they are killing thousands more as the contagion spreads
by touch. We see a staccato montage of the sickness
being spread by touch and by air travel. And so it begins.
Within short days Beth is dead, as is her son. Her husband
Mitch (Matt Damon) is seeing his whole world crumble like
his life just did. We see what is happening in the outside
world through his eyes.
Contagion is a science fiction film that is almost purely
science extrapolation. There is a minimum of
"boy-meets-girl" plotting; there are no fascistic military
megalomaniacs (as there was in 1995's Outbreak); there is
high-tension race to save the human race. Just about every frame of the film tells what is happening with the epidemic. The
filmmakers have taken and filmed an all-too-possible chain of events that might occur if a particularly nasty avian influenza
got loose on the world population. Director Steven Soderbergh's rapid-fire of events comes at the viewer almost faster than
it can be assimilated. There is very little that happens on the screen that is not advancing the scenario.
The action takes place in
about six plot lines, not
necessarily distinct. Two
pivotal characters are Dr. Ellis
Cheever (Laurence Fishburne),
a Center for Disease Control
official charged with leading the
fight against the sickness, and
a popular Internet blogger
Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law).
Each will be the focus of moral
issues arising from the
pandemic. Each will prove to
be selfish in his own way and
each will be a threat to the
public interest. The film makes
a moral distinction between
them, but each is dangerous in
his own way which is very
different from the other's.
One slight departure from the
straightforward scenario format
is that we start with Day 2 when the pandemic is already out of control. It is by this point too late to avert disaster, but the
size of the calamity can be affected. In this way the viewer is immediately swept into a story already in progress. But the
source of the epidemic is has to be found and will be revealed to the viewer only at the end of the film. The events of Day 1
are withheld to heighten suspense.
In Soderbergh's hands the film becomes a story very much of the 21st Century. The Internet and the attitude of the public is
much more crucial to this film than it was or should have been in Outbreak. The information about the epidemic, be it factual
or rumor, is as much a virus on the Internet as the virus is in the
real world. The Internet is an important player in the efforts to control the results of the situation. Soderbergh manages to
give the film a subdued look to counteract the sensationalism of the subject matter.
Contagion demonstrates that science fiction can be used in film for a more serious purpose than telling a superhero story.
The possibility that even the
lead characters may die
adds to the suspense. So
this is the rarest of movies:
a fiercely entertaining and
intelligent blockbuster. And
the most chilling thing of all
is seeing how easily we
spread germs every day.
Soderbergh applies his
brainier brand of filmmaking
to the global outbreak
thriller genre, and the result
is a hugely gripping
blockbuster that never talks
down to its audience. It's
also terrifyingly believable
as we watch a deadly flu
virus spread around the