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 (Gwyneth Paltrow), returns from a business trip to Hong Kong with what appears to be a simple case of the flu, her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), figures it’s nothing to be overly concerned about. When Beth all of a sudden begins to convulse and later dies unexpectedly, doctors are at a loss to explain what happened.
Over the next few days, more and more people become sick and die including Mitch’s young stepson, which gets the national and international disease control organizations working overtime to try to trace, identify and treat this mysterious ailment that sweeping the globe. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) leads the investigation in the United States and calls in Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to track who may have come into contact with Beth upon her return to the Minneapolis. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Hong Kong trace possible origins.
As the first week passes more and more people become sick worldwide, cities start fighting a losing battle against frenzy and panic. In time the virus is identified but due to its unique nature, finding a vaccine and producing it can take several months with thousands of lives lost with each passing day. With chaos breaking loose and the bodies piling up, the authorities find themselves unable to deal with the threat they are facing and go to extreme measures such as closing the state borders to try to contain the spread of the virus.
Adding to the confusion is a freelance blogger named Alan (Jude Law), who has amassed a large audience with his conspiracy claims that there are indeed cures available for the mysterious virus. He contends the government elite and the pharmaceutical companies are exploiting the situation in order to milk maximum profit from the inevitable release of a vaccine.
The film deftly moves around the world showing the victims, scientists and investigators and how the crisis is affecting them. It also shows how quickly society can break down as scene after shocking scene of chaos and devastation are introduced juxtaposed with the number of days since the outbreak of the virus.
Soderbergh keeps you on the edge of your seat and doesn’t give you a moment’s rest. Characters are introduced and given just enough of a back story so that you understand their place in the film. Most heartbreaking is Matt Damon’s role as a father who was watching over his only remaining child, going to great measures to keep her safe while also dealing with the death of his wife and the unfolding secret of the last days of her life.
There is truly an impressive array of stars in the film, some of whom play brief but significant parts in the overall story. However, the movie’s strength is also its weakness in that with so many primary characters, there were some diverging storylines with that did not get fully fleshed out.
While “Contagion” is not the first film to deal with viral outbreak, it is perhaps the most realistic as it doesn’t resort to any Hollywood standards such as car chases, explosions, starcrossed lovers and so on to tell its story. Instead it focuses on stark, somber scenarios and the struggles of each character is very easy to relate to.
Kudos has to be given to many of the stars of the film for their understated but pitch perfect work in very unglamorous roles. Their subtle & poignant acting underscore the dire situations that their characters find themselves in. It was refreshing to see leading men and women looking quite ordinary and letting the story carry the picture rather than focusing on one individual to save the day.
All throughout the film I found myself captivated and never once did I lose interest in the scenarios or characters nor did I find anything in the film impossible to believe. The film doesn’t go overboard on pointing fingers instead it gives an honest and unflinching look at a scenario that we can only hope will never happen. But as the film points out, viral outbreaks have occurred all throughout history. Hardly an encouraging message, but thanks to the stellar cast and gripping subject matter “Contagion” is a film you will not want to miss.
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