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Movie Review: ‘Contagion’

September 9, 2011

I watch a lot of horror movies. I’m a bit of an addict, actually. I’m always able to brush them off as entertainment and sleep peacefully. Until now, that is. Contagion is the stuff of nightmares. While it’s not all that different from any zombie apocalypse movie, it’s a lot more terrifying, because this could really happen, and there is not a damn thing anyone could do about it. I’ll be approaching cold and flu season this year with a new sense of dread.

Director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic) tackles the complications that emerge when a worldwide pandemic spreads fear, misinformation and death in a short period of time. A new virus is contracted by an American woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is traveling for business in Hong Kong. She flies back to the states, and infects everyone she comes in contact with, and so the epidemic begins. Unwitting travellers quickly spread the virus to other countries, and representatives from the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control race to contain the virus. Since it is a new virus, there is no vaccine. Researchers have to go through the laborious process of trying to develop a vaccine and testing it on monkeys, then going through all the red tape of FDA trials before the vaccine can be produced and distributed to the public via a lottery system. One frustrated researcher (Jennifer Ehle) finally takes it upon herself to become a human guinea pig for the vaccine she believes can stop the virus.

The opening sequence of the movie fixates on all the inanimate objects that can become a vessel for the airborne virus-doorknobs, a coffee cup, or a simple glass of water. These everyday objects take on a sinister new role in the post-infection world. The early scenes of the movie quickly establish the short incubation period of the virus, and the high mortality rate it inflicts on the population. Later, the movie examines how human nature escalates the dangers of the new reality. Nurses and first responders strike, riots and looting take hold of major cities, and a general lack of civility make life a living hell even for those who are inexplicably immune. Greed and political corruption run rampant, even as millions of civilians are dropping off daily, and world leaders are too busy finger pointing to cooperate.  Funeral homes won’t take bodies due to insurance liabilities, and a general tendency for government to adhere to rules that clearly no longer serve the greatest common good hinders society as a whole. There are haunting images of the fallout, including mass graves and litter strewn deserted streets. As much as I would like to believe that the world community would embrace and have a Kumbaya moment, I’m afraid Soderbergh’s vision is chillingly accurate.

Characters and storylines converge as Soderbergh explores the crisis from so many different angles. Even though many characters don’t get a lot of screen time, the top-notch cast ensures that their fleeting presence is felt. Kate Winslet is particularly memorable as an unflappable CDC worker who defines altruism and loyalty, while Jude Law (bedecked with a snaggle-tooth to make him look English) plays a slimy blogger who fuels the mass hysteria with a kooky government conspiracy theory. Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Matt Damon, Demetri Martin, Bryan Cranston and Elliott Gould also star in the movie.

Since I work in health care, I was extremely interested in how the science would be depicted, and it was pretty darn accurate. Though there is plenty of medical jargon, the information is digestible to the average moviegoer. It’s certain to raise awareness about the dangers of viral infections.

The film is not perfect. The narrative is structured a lot like Soderbergh’s Traffic, a style I happen to like a lot, but following a riveting first half, the second part of the movie feels a little stagnant, with uneven pacing.  The storylines seem a bit overstuffed, and there are really too many unnecessary characters. Overall, it is still a fascinating look at what happens when the unthinkable occurs. I just hope I never have to find out how realistic it might be.

Rating 4/5

Contagion is rated PG-13. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns. Starring Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Matt Damon, Demetri Martin, Bryan Cranston and Elliott Gould.




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One Response to “ Movie Review: ‘Contagion’ ”

  1. Bev Hood on September 9, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Enjoyed the succinct review – will have to think about going or not. Thanks.