Big Screen :: Contagion

October 26th 2011

Contagion is a movie sure to give birth to thousands of germophobes, with pockets full of hand sanitiser and tissue boxes on their feet.

As a scientist explains, it’s the story of what happens when the wrong bat meets up with the wrong pig causing a disease that might threaten human existence. This isn’t some H1N1 nonsense; this is something more akin to polio, or the Spanish flu. Like the Bird Flu was going to be, before it wasn’t.

The movie is a multi-pronged affair, following a few key characters. Gywneth Paltrow and Matt Damon play the couple who first encounter the disease, Lawrence Fishbourne, Kate Winslet, and Marion Coutillard are health workers trying to stop its spread and find a cure, and Jude Law is the dickhead blogger who nevertheless might have figured it all out. Notice you won’t find the president in that roll call, or the military jerk who wants to blow up some town or something to wipe out the virus. There are no real bad guys here (unless you count the pig, which is fair really, it’s largely his fault). Mostly its just very intelligent people, under enormous pressure and doing their best to figure this shit out.

The film is strongest when it’s dealing with the origins of the disease and its spread. The scale and dread are overwhelming for the first half, yet always feel grounded. Shots of hands lingering on bus poles suddenly become terrifying. I particularly enjoyed how the writer, Scott Z Burns, didn’t feel the need to insert an audience surrogate in there. You know that guy in these movies who always gets exasperated and asks scientists if they could put that in English please. He isn’t in Contagion, because the movie figures you are smart enough to keep up. Rarely do I watch a movie that assumes I am smart. So I enjoyed that. Footloose didn’t think I was smart. Footloose thought I was an idiot. The film is weakest when it gets all shmaltzy tries to fold in some more conventional narratives. Cotillard’s story in particular goes right of the rails, and I don’t think it worked at all.

Steven Soderbergh is one of the most exciting filmmakers working within and outside the system, churning out a huge amount of unpredictable and exciting films like this. He is supposedly retiring after the next, like, seven films he has planned, which include an action movie starring a female mixed martial artist in the lead, a Liberace biopic, and a coming-of-age story set in the world of male strippers. If it’s true, his exit would leave an impossible hole in modern cinema. While it’s certainly not a complete success, Contagion is one of the scariest movies you will see all year.


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