In an age when medical thrillers are more about action sequences and gory makeup effects (Doomsday, the Resident Evil films), along comes Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a cold, methodical, observant social commentary. It takes us through the stages of a worldwide viral epidemic with eerily convincing logic, and with disturbing emotional detachment. It’s not about the art of storytelling so much as the craft of depicting a medical emergency – the spread of the disease, the investigations into confirmed deaths, the efforts to locate the initial time of infection and the source of the virus, the rush to discover a cure, the confusion and misinformation, the public outcries, the ensuing panic and collapse of society, the bureaucratic game play over possible vaccines, the desperation and paranoia and underhanded nepotism.
The film begins with a keen perception of ordinary surfaces, the simple act of touch, and the common practice of mild coughing. A credit card passes from one hand to another before the bartender taps on her electronic keypad. People are constantly picking up glasses, pressing buttons, and grabbing hold of handles. We later learn that the average person will touch his or her face three to five times every waking minute, while in between come into contact with everyday objects and other people. Later still, we watch a woman named Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) lives it up in a Hong Kong casino during a business trip; she blows on dice for good luck, handles martini glasses, and breathes in the same tight spaces as other gamblers. Although I’m not germophobic, these scenes made me more aware of my tactile encounters and reminded me that regular hand washing is a good habit.
The ads have already revealed that Beth has been infected and will die upon her return to Minneapolis. She initially complains of jetlag and a headache, but by the time she gets home, she will collapse and have what appears to be a seizure. What remains a mystery is when and how the virus was transmitted to her. The number of other people she infected is also unknown. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), spends most of the film exasperated, bewildered, and strangely disconnected from those closest to him, including his teenage daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron). In all likelihood, he’s in shock, and that’s certainly understandable. He’s apparently immune to the virus, although nothing much comes from this; he’s still forced to sequester himself and his daughter in his home, not just from the potentially infected, but also from increasingly brazen looters.
As new cases are reported all over the world, a team of international medical experts determine that the virus has a rapid incubation period, is airborne, and spreads at about the same rate as polio before the vaccine was discovered. The team includes: Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a medical investigative reporter; Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cottillard), who works for the World Health Organization in Geneva; and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), a scientist and colleague of Dr. Cheever. A scientist named Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) finds himself mired in medical politics when he discovers he can successfully replicate the virus in his lab, thereby paving the way for a possible vaccine.
Keeping watch over the escalating situation is a blogger and freelance journalist from San Francisco named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). He’s the proverbial sociopolitical rabble rouser – a conspiracy theorist and outspoken critic of mass media, governments, and corporations, specifically pharmaceutical and health care industries. He represents the kind of people that spend more time frightening people than in offering solutions. Although he claims to be a champion for the truth, later scenes make it clear that he’s just as much an opportunist as most of the politicians and business leaders he chastises. Why is it, for example, that he sings the praises of an unproven homeopathic treatment while disavowing any government-funded attempts at creating a vaccine?
And what of the vaccine? When a discovery is made, an entirely new host of medical protocols slow its availability to the public – animal trials, human trials, and getting it approved would all take months. Even after it becomes available, it becomes a question of who will have access to it first, and of that, I will say no more. Like all other aspects of the film, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns intelligently scrutinize the situation. What they shy away from is an emotional center for the audience to identify with. The characters are observed with almost scientific precision, and yet there’s no real sense of how they feel. I’m not really being critical, although it certainly would have been a welcome addition. As visceral and disconcerting as Contagion is, it’s not a narrative film so much as a study in technique, and as such, it succeeds in tremendous fashion.
Steven Soderberg is one director who has a colorful and somewhat impressive resume; his best works include “Solaris”, “Ocean’s Eleven”, “Erin Brokovich”, and “Traffic” so I guess it would be easy to expect much from him. Soderbergh’s “Contagion” is a movie that can easily be ruined by expectations from its viewer. I tend to see a director as someone who is only as good as his last work, so I went to see it with an open mind. … more
*** out of **** Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" feels like a documentary film shot through the lenses of a gloriously high-quality film camera. Perhaps this is because in a sense, it kind of is. The film is about a deadly epidemic/pandemic - unidentified and initially untreatable - that starts to spread across the globe; from Hong Kong to Atlanta. The basic plot concerns a number of different people ranging from scientists to a blogger; all of whom react in significantly different … more
CONTAGION Directed by Steven Soderbergh I’m not sure I can in good conscious recommend Contagion to anyone at all. It’s not that it’s a bad film; it’s just that seeing it has potentially damaging consequences on your psyche. About ten minutes into watching it, you might become hyper aware of your surroundings. Coughing noises will become amplified while your armrest might suddenly feel stickier than it did when you first sat down. In fact, by the time you’ve … more
A couple of years ago, news and health agencies the world over were concerned about a possible pandemic stemming from bird flu and swine flu. Thankfully like SARS a few years earlier, the outbreaks were rather small thanks to a wealth of precautionary information and measures. In the new film “Contagion” director Steven Soderbergh paints a frighteningly realistic look at a worldwide pandemic that spread without warning, and its devastating aftermath. When businesswoman Beth Emhoff … more
By Joan Alperin Schwartz An international traveler reaches into the snack bowl at an airport bar before passing her credit card to a waiter. A business meeting begins with a round of handshakes. A man coughs on a crowded bus. One contact. One instant. And a lethal virus is transmitted. Great premise. Great beginning. but unfortunately, that's not enough to make a great film. 'Contagion' … more
Major yawn. The only reason I don't add more minuses is the acting was solid despite the general weakness of the story. This was too much an "inside" movie to be anything close to a thriller and the conspiracy storylines were too weak to rescue it as a conspiracy type movie.
Big cast, big story, big fear, lots of talk but little action. Despite being a big fan of Matt Damon, this is one movie where I don't think he excels in. In fact, you won't even notice he's there. Waste of talent, I feel. No punch. Not surprises. Nothing new here!
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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