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Contagion / *** (PG-13)Posted Wednesday, September 21, 2011, at 5:51 PM
Oh, the thing's we'll do to survive a super virus. Steven Soderbergh's virus disaster picture "Contagion" is scaring audiences across the country.
To this date, the scariest book I've ever read is Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone", a non-fiction thriller about the origins and incidents of the hemorrhagic fevers caused by the Ebola and Marburg filoviruses. I read it alone in my first apartment. I was single and was convinced that we were all going to die very soon. Obviously nature was very angry with us.
After a few months, I realized the incidences depicted in the book were isolated and measures were in place to help prevent a wide spread outbreak of such devastating diseases. Steven Soderbergh's new film "Contagion" shows us those measures and all the problems we will face in implementing them in a way that won't be misinterpreted as some form of restrictive oppression and conspiracy. Now, I am scared once again.
Following the hyperlink format that he used in his excellent film "Traffic", Soderbergh gives us a large cast of characters that fill different roles in the progress and process of spreading, containing and controlling the outbreak. The cast of characters is spread across a wide range of international locations, though most of the procedural process is contained to the United States. Every time we meet a new character title cards cue us as to the character's location and the population of that city. The large size of the Minneapolis population surprised me.
The virus enters the U.S. through a Minneapolis family. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, "Country Strong") is returning from a business trip to Hong Kong with what appears to be a cold. She stops off in Chicago to visit her lover before returning to her family. She's dead within 2 days. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon, "Invictus"), is hit with a triple whammy as his stepson exhibits symptoms as quickly as his wife did, and Mitch is placed into quarantine to prevent the spread of this mysterious super-virus.
Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne, "Mystic River") heads the CDC team responsible for the identification, containment, and solution process of dealing with the virus. He sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, "Mildred Pierce") to be his on site envoy at ground zero in Minneapolis, while Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, "Pride and Glory") tries to reproduce the virus so a vaccine can be developed. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, "Inception") as a liaison to Hong Kong to trace the origins of the virus.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!") takes a very clinical approach to these story elements. He concentrates on the CDC procedures and facts about identification and containment of such high impact diseases more so than on the emotional impact of what these characters are going through. The cinematography, by Soderbergh himself, is cold, filled with blue hues to enhance the clinical feel of the scientific approach. Film editor Stephen Mirrione never allows the picture to linger on the aftermath of any of the plot's setbacks. This conforms to the clinical approach of the writing and direction and also suggests what these experts know about this situation--there is no time to mourn.
Events on a global scale such as this cannot unfold in a bubble, however, and the filmmakers don't contain their study of this super virus to the scientific community. Soon the CDC feels the influence of the U.S. government as a military liaison (Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad") is sent to oversee their progress and toughen up the containment strategy. This is also a world where information--and more importantly misinformation--is at the public's fingertips. Jude Law ("Sherlock Holmes") is a conspiracy blogger who claims to function as a hard-nosed journalist. He spreads fear and doubts about the integrity of the information being fed to the public by the CDC about the outbreak.
"Contagion" lacks some power because of its clinical approach. Characters never get a good chance for development, so the audience can't relate to some of their situations on an emotional level. I believe the subplot about the WHO liaison's kidnapping is intended to evoke an emotional response about her kidnappers' situation, but the movie doesn't spend enough time on their story for their emotion or Dr. Orantes' empathy to sink in. Matt Damon's character is finally given an emotional outburst at the end of the film, and this works well to give the audience some closure on what we've just experienced.
Despite its lack of emotional power, "Contagion" is compelling and frightening enough on its procedural depiction alone. The filmmakers do a good job of covering more bases than you can anticipate in terms of the problems that will arise during an epidemic crisis such as the one portrayed here. There's even a feel of the classic disaster picture to be found here. And, if there's anything I can be sure of after seeing this movie, it's that I am cancelling my plans to open a pig and bat farm.
"Contagion" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.