Contagion Review

by Mark R. Leeper (mleeper AT optonline DOT net)
September 16th, 2011

    (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

    CAPSULE: Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns give us a fast-paced and grim scenario of a nasty but all-too-possible avian flu was released and spread through the environment. There are about six strands of plot running through the scenario, each with a recognizable actor playing the main character. In spite of the presence of major stars Soderbergh gives us the confidence that he is not tweaking the film to exaggerate the drama or excitement. Even without the usual tropes of science fiction, this is--among other things--an excellent science fiction techno thriller. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

CONTAGION begins with a cough. Beth Emhoff (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) is in an airport calling on her cell phone talking to a man--not her husband--about their recent sex. Beth does not know it but she is dying. And she is killing perhaps thousands who touch what she has touched. And they are killing thousands more as the contagion spreads by touch. We see a staccato montage of the sickness being spread by touch and by air travel. And so it begins. Within short days Beth is dead, as is her son. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is seeing his whole world crumble like his life just did. We see what is happening in the outside world through his eyes.

CONTAGION is a science fiction film that is almost purely science extrapolation. There is a minimum of "boy-meets-girl" plotting; there are no fascistic military megalomaniacs (as there was in 1995's OURBREAK); there is no last-minute, high-tension race to save the human race. Just about every frame of the film tells what is happening with the epidemic. The filmmakers have taken and filmed an all-too-possible chain of events that might occur if a particularly nasty avian influenza got loose on the world population. Director Steven Soderbergh's rapid-fire of events comes at the viewer almost faster than it can be assimilated. There is very little that happens on the screen that is not advancing the scenario.

The action takes place in about six plot lines, not necessarily distinct. Two pivotal characters are Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a Center for Disease Control official charged with leading the fight against the sickness, and a popular Internet blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Each will be the focus of moral issues arising from the pandemic. Each will prove to be selfish in his own way and each will be a threat to the public interest. The film makes a moral distinction between them, but each is dangerous in his own way which is very different from the other's.

One slight departure from the straightforward scenario format is that we start with Day 2 when the pandemic is already out of control. It is by this point too late to avert disaster, but the size of the calamity can be affected. In this way the viewer is immediately swept into a story already in progress. But the source of the epidemic is has to be found and will be revealed to the viewer only at the end of the film. The events of Day 1 are withheld to heighten suspense.

In Soderbergh's hands the film becomes a story very much of the 21st Century. The Internet and the attitude of the public is much more crucial to this film than it was or should have been in OUTBREAK. The information about the epidemic, be it factual or rumor, is as much a virus on the Internet as the virus is in the real world. The Internet is an important player in the efforts to control the results of the situation. Soderbergh manages to give the film a subdued look to counteract the sensationalism of the subject matter.

CONTAGION demonstrates that science fiction can be used in film for a more serious purpose than telling a superhero story. I rate the film a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. In a sense this film is an interesting pairing with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. People who stayed through the closing credits of the APES film will understand how well this film dovetails with that one.

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Mark R. Leeper
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Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper

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