Film Review: “Contagion” — Virus infects world, world dies, world loots, scientists try to develop vaccine.

Despite its serious script and premise, Contagion is somehow able to retain a subtle element of “fun,” an admirable feat for a movie in which scores of people die in nearly every scene.

Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. At cinemas throughout New England.

By Maraithe Thomas

Marion Cotillard works to save the world in CONTAGION

Contagion, the new star-studded, apocalyptic thriller from Steven Soderbergh, might turn you into one of those people. The people who sign receipts with a napkin covering the pen, who spray hand sanitizer on subway poles, who punch other people in the face when they don’t cover their sneeze. See, the film depicts a highly-infectious disease called MEV-1 that kills two people, then four people, then 16 people, then 25 million people, all in a matter of days.

And while the magnitude of its imagined disease and the glamour of its actors can make the movie seem far removed from reality (Soderbergh actually went to great lengths to ensure plausibility), you might find it impossible to refute a lingering thought in the back of your mind that this could really happen. Indeed, as I write this, my roommate is coughing in the next room with a “head cold,” and I’ll concede, it makes me a little more than just slightly nervous.

The film consists of a series of vignettes, bouncing around from city to city checking in with each of its main characters, all of whom are trying to fight the virus under different circumstances. We start with Gwyneth Paltrow, an executive who also happens to be our “patient zero.” She’s in Hong Kong, then Chicago, and then Minneapolis where she collapses, convulses, and dies foaming at the mouth. Her husband, played by Matt Damon, also loses his stepson to the virus before quarantining himself for most of the movie with his teenage daughter. Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet bring us inside the CDC; Marion Cotillard is a field doctor from the World Health Organization.

As the movie keeps us abreast of its chronology (we see the captioning DAY 3 . . .DAY 12 . . . DAY 39 . . . in an ominous, red typeface), more and more people die as doctors struggle to find a vaccine for this new, elusive disease. Still, with all its graphic mortality and (eventual) violence, the movie proves frightening on a psychological level more than anything else. That’s because this whole scenario is familiar to us and not just because of the dozens of other films based on a similar plot. We’ve all lived through the worry surrounding real-life outbreaks like SARS and the H1N1 virus of last winter.

However, unlike much of the media coverage that characterized those events, Contagion’s script is not particularly cheesy or sensational and shows off a bit by throwing around scientific terms like “fomites” and “R-naught” that are not always defined for us as they are on, say, an episode of CSI.

Despite its serious script and premise, the film is somehow able to retain a subtle element of “fun,” an admirable feat for a movie in which scores of people die in nearly every scene. It’s cool to sit back and see Winslet run around as an epidemic intelligence service officer (whatever that means) or Cotillard as a World Health Organization rep. They’re actors of high stature (both have won the Academy Award for Best Actress within the last four years) who tend to star in award-winning dramas and don’t have to do movies like this for their careers. They rarely do, so it should be savored when they take a walk on the wild side.

The movie progresses along with its quick scenes but stumbles when it attempts draw moral conclusions about human nature in the face of crisis, i.e. looting, violence, and compassion, and begins to verge on the glib. It also comments awkwardly on the viral (ha ha) nature of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs (note to Jude Law: “YouTubed” isn’t a thing) as it draws a parallel between the spread of information on the Internet and the transmission of a deadly disease. This had potential to be a really clever comparison, but it falls short. We’re told that much of the panic surrounding MEV-1 is Internet-driven, but we never actually see this happening.

By the film’s end, a lot of loose ends are left untied, but we’re not left to assume that everyone perishes; a vaccine begins to circulate mid-way through the movie. Cotillard disappears for a good chunk of the film’s middle, and her sub-plot is left unresolved. We could just assume that what’s left of our main characters survives but . . . but . . . what if they didn’t? The uncertainty left by the film’s conclusion will contribute to your impending paranoia.

Gwyneth Paltrow has a bad case of the killer vapors in CONTAGION.

One thing we can be sure about is this film is the acting though, right? I mean, look at all those Oscar nominees and winners! Oh wait . . . here’s Jude Law (sorry, ladies) mucking it up. Law plays an agonizingly irritating, British journalist who wears a corduroy blazer and a cabbie hat (because that’s how all journalists dress), says things like “crikey,” and rampantly projects conspiracy theories about the government in these rambling tirades that just drag on and on. This might have been the point of his character, but that doesn’t make it any less tiresome. He also sports a wonky front tooth in what may have been an attempt to tone down possibly-distracting Law sex appeal to make him more believable as a blue-collar type, but that didn’t stop one woman from literally gasping in the theater when he first appeared on-screen. (This was followed by much-deserved tittering).

Making up for Law’s shortcomings though, are two actors who aren’t billed among the A-listers: Jennifer Ehle, who literary/Colin Firth geeks like myself will recognize from the A&E Pride and Prejudice miniseries, is brilliant as the CDC chemist trying to find a vaccine to combat MEV-1. Demitri Martin (yes, the comedian) also shines as her colleague.

Coming at the end of a summer in which American audiences were bombarded with sequels and remakes, Contagion is refreshing in that it is neither of these things, but the plot is nothing particularly new. Virus infects world, world dies, world loots, scientists try to develop vaccine.

But the film has a couple things that will draw crowds in a way that many summer movies failed to: 1. its elite cast and 2. its slightly higher-grade-than-usual plot. People will like this movie for its end-of-days premise (who doesn’t?), and this one is, despite its flaws, both an entertaining thriller and a fitting transition between summer’s blockbusters and fall’s more serious, pre-Oscar line-up. Just remember to wash your hands after; you don’t know who was sitting in that seat before you. Cough cough.

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  1. Shelley on September 20, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Since Soderbergh has a political sensibility sharper than most, at first I was puzzled by his choice of topic.

    But then I realized: such a scenario reminds us of the necessity of well-funded, efficient, compassionate government.

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