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Contagion (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Not-So-Good Germ"
5 stars

The idea of making a film about a virus, either natural or man-made, being inadvertently released into the populace and a group of people struggling mightily to avoid getting exposed to it while desperately racing against the clock to find a cure is nothing new--the conceit has fueled movies ranging from low-budget gems like George Romero’s “The Crazies” or David Cronenberg’s “Shivers” to large-scale silliness like “Outbreak” or the failed television adaptation of Stephen King’s literary epic “The Stand.” On the surface, the new thriller “Contagion” may appear to be more of the same but it brings a couple of things to the table that many of those previous attempts have lacked--a creative behind-the-scenes team with enough confidence in the inherent creepiness of their premise to tell their story in a realistic and non-hyperbolic manner and a star-studded collection of actors who have been asked to do more than coast through a few scenes in a high-profile project in exchange for a hefty paycheck. The result is a creepy and uncommonly effective thriller that is an example of something that has become increasingly rare in contemporary American cinema--a smart, spare and well-crafted adult-oriented drama that never takes the intelligence of its audience for granted with phony scares, goopy gross-outs or a storyline that requires its participants to act like idiots in order to keep things moving along.

The film starts with the most innocuous of images--a hand reaching into a bowl of
peanuts in a Hong Kong airport bar--that turns out to be the flashpoint of an epidemic
that will soon threaten to decimate the world. The hand belongs to businesswoman Beth
Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and by the time she returns home to Minnesota (via one
significant stopover in Chicago) to her family, her seemingly harmless gestures have
already kick-started a mysterious epidemic in numerous countries around the world. At
first, she just seems to be suffering from a nasty case of the flu but when she collapses
and is rushed to the hospital in an unsuccessful attempt to revive her (since her death
is highlighted in every trailer and commercial that I have seen for the film, I will
argue that this hardly constitutes a spoiler), the doctors are unable to give her stunned
husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), any indication of what could have killed her other than the
fact that it is scary indeed. How scary? When the doctors cut into her skull during an
autopsy to figure out what she was suffering from, they utter what could well be the
three least assuring things that doctors could say under those circumstances; “Oh, my
God,” “I want you to step away from the table” and “Call everyone!” By that time,
however, the disease has begun killing people from Chicago to China and no one knows what
it could be or how it can be stopped.

As the casualties begin to mount, a group of scientists begin to fan out around the
world in the hopes of figuring it out before too many people succumb to it. In Atlanta,
CDC head Dr. Ellis Cheever tries to keep a lid on things as long as possible in order to
prevent a panic while attempting to convince military personnel that it isn’t a
biological terrorist weapon. In China, World Health Organization scientist Dr. Leonora
Orantes (Marion Cotillard) investigates a possible link between the outbreak and a nearly
decimated village when she is kidnapped by survivors who hope to ransom her for the
vaccine. In Minnesota, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) tries to institute quarantine
procedures without succumbing to the disease, now known as MEV-1, herself. In anonymous
labs, scientists played by Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin painstakingly
try to break the virus down and replicate it in order to develop a vaccine. On the
non-scientific front, the immune Mitch and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) are
unable to leave Minnesota and are forced to struggle to stay sane and alive as the
inevitable breakdown of society kicks in through looting and rioting and worse. Meanwhile
in San Francisco, angry blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who was one of the first to
notice that something was going on, begins spreading the word that a cure is already
available but that the pharmaceutical companies and the government are colluding to keep
word of it suppressed so that they can make millions with their own vaccine--his words
fan the flames of an already tense situation but there is a question as to whether he is
truly on the up and up or if he has some dark ulterior motive regarding his
pronouncements even as the death tool continues to rise.

In most of the past attempts at telling stories of this particular ilk, filmmakers have
often tried to compensate for the fact that they are dealing with a menace that cannot be
seen or heard by over-inflating practically every other aspect--the human villains are of
the moustache-twirling variety, the effects of the disease are rendered in the most
lovingly disgusting ways imaginable and the storylines tend to devolve into a series of
extensive action set-pieces in which the heroes frantically try to save the day while the
clock ticks down to some doomsday scenario. For “Contagion,” Soderbergh and screenwriter
Scott Z. Burns have chosen a more clinical approach to the material that is closer in
tone to pure procedurals like “All the President’s Men” and “Zodiac,” with lots of people
sitting in conference rooms and labs trying to stay one step ahead of the virus than the
likes of “Outbreak,” which sent its stars hurtling around in helicopters chasing after
infected monkeys before nuclear bombs can be detonated or whatever silliness was included
there. For those expecting something a little more lurid, this particular take may seem a
bit strange at first but as the on-screen pandemic begins to spread, most of them will
likely find themselves caught up in the proceedings to a far greater degree than they
would have if it had been treated as just another trashy disaster movie. For example,
there is a distinct lack of the bodily fluids that one might expect to be deployed at
regular intervals in order to gross viewers out (even the aforementioned autopsy is
relatively discreet) but audiences are likely to be so freaked out by the cool and
dispassionate ways in which diseases such as the one depicted here can be spread that
they probably won’t even notice. Although the screenplay is spare in regards to the basic
narrative and the characters--we are spared elaborate backstories or contrived scenes
that have been shoehorned into the script solely to get several of the big stars on
camera at the same time--the end result is a multi-layered tale that is just as complex
as Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and he negotiates what could have been an unwieldy traffic jam
of myriad storylines and far-flung characters with such precision that it is almost
startling to see how well it all comes together.

Another element that goes a long way towards the success of “Contagion” is the all-star
cast and the clever ways in which Soderbergh deploys them. In the disaster films of old,
the casts were usually jam-packed with a combination of big stars of the day cashing easy
paychecks for a few weeks of less-than-taxing work, up-and-comers who had yet to get
their big breaks and slightly past their prime veterans hoping to restore some of their
luster by being seen in a certain commercial blockbuster. This film contains just as many
shining stars as those films but the difference is that here, they have been cannily cast
to type and they have also been given roles that allow them to act instead of simply
coasting through. On the medical front, Laurence Fishburne is strong and sure as the CDC
head whose all-business attitude begins to waver when the illness threatens his own loved
ones. Marion Cotillard is equally impressive as the WHO rep who finds all her best
efforts come to naught when she literally becomes little more than a pawn in a much
bigger and deadlier game. As the scientists, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin and Elliot
Gould are convincing as the ordinary people who may hold the fate of the world in their
test tubes--Gould also gets the bonus of delivering a bit of commentary about bloggers
that is the film’s single most memorable line. A resolutely deglammed Kate Winslet turns
in a heartbreaking performance as the front-line worker whose dogged efforts take a
tragic turn. On the civilian side, Jude Law is appropriately brash as the obnoxious
blogger whose widely broadcast conspiracy theories threaten to make a bad situation
already worse, Matt Damon is steadfast as the normal family man who is forced to bear
witness to the disintegration of both his family and the world around him and newcomer
Anna Jacoby-Heron is quite touching as the daughter struggling to come to terms with what
is happening around her and her father’s increasing levels of paranoia. Although the
virus is essentially the main character of the story and the drive to eradicate it is
what keeps it going, Damon and Jacoby-Heron turn out to be the heart of it and because of
their considerable efforts, a finale that could have come across as embarrassingly sappy
in the hands of lesser performers allows the story to conclude on a note that is
surprisingly touching and graceful when one considers all that has gone before it.

Aside from fairly misfired subplot involving the kidnapping of Cotillard’s character--a narrative device that doesn’t really have much of a payoff and keeps the magnetic actress off the screen for far too long--”Contagion” is a marvelously efficient thriller that is tense without being idiotic, scary without being yucky and smart without being confusing. It proves once again that when Soderbergh is working at the top of his game as he is here, there are few filmmakers who can begin to rival him for his blend of canny commercial instincts and offbeat, anti-Hollywood sensibilities (best represented here by the cinematography done by Soderbergh himself under his “Peter Andrews” alias and the trippy score by Cliff Martinez that may prove to be one of the year’s best). In recent months, Soderbergh has hinted in interviews about the possibility of retiring from filmmaking and one can certainly understand why someone as relentlessly prolific as he has been (since 2000, he has directed no less than 16 feature films, not counting his television work or his contribution to the short film trilogy “Eros”) would have a desire to pack it all in. While I have a sneaky suspicion that his alleged retirement is going to last as long as Luc Besson’s (besides the new project he is currently directing, he has the action thriller “Haywire” ready for release and a biopic on Liberace in the hopper as well), I certainly hope that he reconsiders this idea and goes back to work because he is one of the most prodigiously talented American filmmakers working today and as “Contagion” clearly demonstrates, this is nothing to sneeze at.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20772&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/08/11 18:18:28
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User Comments

3/20/20 Crazy Real Wish I saw this movie before Covid19 5 stars
9/13/17 morris campbell chilling be sure to scrub your hands 4 stars
7/30/13 mr.mike Good, but its low-key style may underwhelm some viewers. 4 stars
12/27/12 Nope Amazing film! Expertly executed. 5 stars
6/16/12 Ady boy Hey Viola, wherever you are, I AGREE WITH YOU. 4 stars
5/20/12 Viola Someone explain the acceptance of Paltrow, I think she's repulsive. 4 stars
4/05/12 Matt Damon What was found in Gwyneth Paltrow's head. I know...NOTHING. 4 stars
1/14/12 Marty some stars miscast. too many characters to keep interest. bore 3 stars
1/13/12 GO TEAM What's important is..Paltrow dies early in the film and it goes on w/o her. YES!. 4 stars
9/12/11 Carol Miles Any movie that kills off Gwyneth Paltrow has my seal of approval. 5 stars
9/11/11 Jeff Wilder Effective. Soderbergh's direction keeps the tension going. More to the point than Outbreak. 4 stars
9/11/11 Rhys Good 1st 45 min. then too slow. Needed some ACTION that stars pay check took from budget. 3 stars
9/10/11 Darkstar Really good, smart thriller. 4 stars
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  09-Sep-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 03-Jan-2012


  DVD: 03-Jan-2012

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