Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh                         Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Film Score: Cliff Martinez                              Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Laurence Fishburn, Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard

Superficially, Contagion seems like just another star-studded epidemic disaster film. And yet this one takes a very different turn with an emphasis on realism. This, of course, makes sense coming from Participant Media, which has made dozens of high-quality documentaries over the past ten years. Still, it’s a difficult line to walk between information and entertainment. There’s a discernable difference between plot-driven epidemic films like The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak and something that proposes to be as accurate as possible about what a worldwide pandemic would look like. Gone are the soap opera sub-plots and the mustache-twirling military men, and instead are realistic people who are trying, against the odds, to do the jobs they were trained for. And just like real life, not everyone makes it out alive. Just because these brave people work with infectious diseases doesn't mean that they have some kind of special immunity. While the disaster-type films can be more entertaining in a way, they can also be exponentially exasperating in watching the contrived situations. On the other hand, the real-life simulation can be a bit boring if it’s not what you’re expecting.

The film begins on Day 2 of the outbreak with Gwyneth Paltrow at the Chicago airport, clearly sick. When she gets home to Minnesota she infects her son, but not husband Matt Damon who is immune. Meanwhile there are outbreaks in Japan, Hong Kong and London. Laurence Fishburn, the head of The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, is naturally alerted and he sends out one of his doctors, Kate Winslet, to Minnesota and she makes the connection with the deaths there to the outbreak in Chicago. Once the disease is clearly verging on epidemic proportions the World Health Organization gets involved and sends someone to Hong Kong where Paltrow had been flying home from. Marion Cotillard is the doctor in charge of this investigation and pins down the casino Paltrow had been in and all of the people around her there who died as well, but winds up caught up in something unexpected. The doctor doing the lab work at the CDC is Jennifer Ehle and, with the help of Elliot Gould who isolates the virus and is able to grow it, finally comes up with a vaccine.

This is definitely not a thrill-ride disaster film, but it is harrowing in its own way. At the same time that the scientific work is going on the public’s reaction to the news is almost more dangerous. Jude Law is a blogger with a huge audience and he is only interested in manipulating the public in order to make a pile of money off of the epidemic. And, of course, as things progress there is looting and rioting and the worst of human nature that comes out. There are some great twists with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, and the other thing is the incredible realism displayed by Jennifer Ehle in the face of the disaster. Instead of being panicked by the situation she works the problem, tells the truth, and controls the situation rather than letting it control her. The reason, I’m sure, for the all-star cast is no doubt due to director Steven Soderbergh who has the ability to get tons of stars to work for him. He’s done some nice work and this falls into the same category, not brilliant but certainly entertaining. Contagion is a unique story, a different take on the genre that's well worth checking out as long as expectations are adjusted accordingly.

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