"Contagion" follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.
"Day Two"...the beginning title over a well-worn Gwyneth Paltrow playing the role of Beth Emhoff. Beth is also the first documented case, Patient Zero, in the United States of what will become a global epidemic caused by an airborne virus science has never seen before. This virus is the focal point of Contagion and the film utilizes the procedural approach to such an occurrence more so than the emotional response of individuals.
Contagion begins as any movie about a virus should begin, with the first known subject and subsequent others dying. Yes, Paltrow's Beth Emhoff dies in the beginning of the film and it is not a spoiler to include this information--it is actually pertinent to understanding how the entire rest of the film will operate. One death, or three, looks like a fluke event; multiple people in different cities and countries all dying the same way causes an alert at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). This is where Contagion takes the viewer, inside the government agencies and health organizations who become the points of information, containment, and ultimately the finders of a cure if/when a virus attacks the human population.
The start of the film may bend towards the emotional, as Beth dies and her husband Thomas (Matt Damon) is dumbstruck by the news and continues to be hit with more tragedy as the film continues. The character of Thomas will always be the human connection of the entire story, as Contagion dives deeper into the scientific and governmental approaches it always returns to Thomas and his teenager daughter to maintain some form of human connection between film and viewer. Thomas' story is not what makes Contagion fascinating to watch; the procedural method employed in the script, and executed by Director Steven Soderbergh, takes Contagion far beyond the tired emotional schlock of apocalyptic themed movies.
There is a process when dealing with a virus of epidemic proportions. Contagion takes you through each of these steps, displaying the methods employed to try and save as many lives as possible through quarantine, to the steps of creating a vaccine and/or treatment for the already infected. It is a laborious and stressful endeavor, and one that is incredibly interesting to watch displayed on screen. Even more so when you have a conspiracy theorist blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), attacking the government and pharmaceutical companies for their corruption in developing and distributing a "cure", as well as his belief in an alternate "cure" that they refuse to acknowledge or promote. As well as the Department of Homeland Security questioning the possibility it is a bio-terrorist act. These two tangents of the story are unfortunately the weak points, full of flaws of reasoning and action, and areas of great confusion in terms of the natural "cure" that Krumwiede supports.
Then there is of course the effects of a virus that literally disrupts the entire World, leading to riots, violence, fear, anxiety, chaos and the general uneasiness of not knowing if death awaits you within hours, days, or never--for the select few who are immune to the virus, a survival of the fittest Darwin motif employed instead of religious undertones and end-of-days babble. These effects are taken on casually in the film as it avoids over-dramatizing the disruption to instead focus on the greater reality of the situation. This is not to say there are not moments of morality and ethics, as well as sacrifice. The expected coming in the form of the question, "who will receive the vaccine first and can the government be trusted to follow through on the decision?"
Contagion is a work of fiction, yet it is all too familiar with the recent bird-flu scares and past epidemics, such as the Spanish Flu in 1918 that took the lives of 50 million people. A virus of the magnitude in Contagion can happen; it may not be today, or tomorrow, or even in your own lifetime but it is possible. The fear of the reality of a situation similar to the one in Contagion is where the thrills come from, and the underlining fear you take with you afterwards--shaking someone's hand, touching a doorknob, or being in a crowded elevator will never be the same for you again.
Contagion has an incredible ensemble cast, full of Oscar winners, nominees, and a variety of talented character actors as well. With this amount of talent, the likes of Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, and Jude Law, to name a few, it is unfortunate that the script does not allow any of the characters portrayed any level of development. Everyone exists in order to play the part in the outbreak, the resulting panic, to make personal and professional choices, and the like but the stakes are never raised for any of the characters and everything that happens to them is quite predictable. The end result is not due to the lack of capability by the actors but the lack of material in order for them to make their performances memorable. Contagion is a film with a variety of types of people, all experiencing a variety of extreme circumstances, yet they never develop past a level of clinical engagement with the viewer. The virus itself is the star of Contagion, and the actors mere toys to dispose of at will via death or a swift cut to the next alternating storyline.
September 9, 2011