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Sep162011

Contagion review - gripping, poignant, unemotional

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion unfolds as quickly and ruthlessly as the virus around which it is centred. It doesn't occupy its audience with ambiguous shot composition and framing; it is concise and to the point. While the performances from its stars are not award-worthy, they are swift and calculated. At times the film looks and feels sterile, yet remains imbibed with the kind of energy and emotion that many of us have grown accustomed to in recent times, assaulted as we so often are by images on television of natural disasters, war, terrorism, and of course--lethal and misunderstood illnesses.

Chronological and deadly

Told (primarily) in chronological order, the plot unfolds at a breakneck pace: a deadly, airborne virus spreads rapidly across heavily populated areas around the globe, devastating ordinary families like that of Beth and Mitch Emhoff (played by Gweneth Paltrow and Matt Damon, respectively), and sending various members of the worldwide medical community scrambling for answers and, hopefully, a cure. Among them are Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) of the Epidemic Intelligence Service who struggles to trace the origins of the virus, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. They speak breathlessly and work tirelessly in their efforts to understand, contain, and cure the virus once it becomes apparent that they are not dealing with just another H1N1 or SARS epidemic. This one is far more serious, and seems genuinely likely to push the global population toward the brink of collapse.

Through quick yet pointed editing, Soderbergh spends much focus specifically on the transmission of the virus. We see a quick handshake here, a pat on the shoulder there. A man blows on a gambling chip for good luck. It’s not that the film is telling us anything new or remarkable – germs and bacteria are a part of every public, shared space, hence why we’re encouraged at such a young age to wash our hands as often as possible. But the sheer number of these quick shots instills in viewers a sort of nervousness, and I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat a little at the thought of how many germs I was in contact with at that very moment in the theatre just by touching my arm rest. It probably didn’t help that I had woken up with a sore throat that morning, either. Hypochondriacs, beware. This is probably not the film for you.

The traditional dichotomy of hero/villain is far less recognizable in a film such as this, not only because the virus – the sole villain – is invisible, but also because the human characters are treated with a rare ethical indifference. For example Beth Emhoff makes some morally questionable decisions, and we aren’t even sure she feels remorseful about them. Similarly, Dr. Cheever’s actions expose his own lack of conscience – to the point that Congress decides to investigate him – but none of it matters. We are watching a film about human beings struggling to survive as a species against a seemingly insurmountable opponent. It’s the same dynamic that we see in films about an alien invasion or zombie apocalypse, and as is the case in those movies, Contagion makes us wonder how we ourselves might behave under such extreme circumstances.

Big cast, little emotion

A few words about the cast: Contagion features a significant A-list ensemble, and as such, prevents us from spending enough screen time with any one actor to really get to the heart of his or her character. Mitch Emhoff, for example, is not actually Mitch Emhoff – he’s Matt Damon with a few extra pounds.

But the film doesn’t necessarily suffer because of this. With everything moving so quickly, I hardly think I’d have felt sympathy for any of the characters were it not for the recognisability and cheap sense of intimacy afforded by the actors’ celebrity status. In other words, we don’t know these characters well enough to care about them, but we feel like we do because we’re already so familiar with the people behind them. I was reminded of The Hurt Locker, and the characters played by its only real stars – Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes. Their characters lasted only minutes, but because the actors were instantly recognizable, their deaths elicited genuine emotion. In sum, Contagion’s all-star cast will likely distract you, but it will hardly leave you rolling your eyes.

Smart, fast, and genuinely unnerving, Soderbergh’s latest does not disappoint. Although it’s not likely to engage the full spectrum of your emotions, it’s gripping enough that its 106-minute running time flies by. Oh, and it’s a particularly poignant film. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you.

Rating:  (Good)

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