Of Germs and Men…

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, is supposed to be a horror story about a monster we can’t actually see, a virus that is travelling so quickly that it’s reaching pandemic proportions in a matter of weeks or even days. What Jaws did for beaches, Contagion aims to do for shaking hands and public transportation. (There’s even a reference made to Jaws in the script).

The movie is a product of the writing-directing team of  Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns, who brought us The Informant! and seems less like Outbreak, a more conventionally scary medical thriller, with monkeys as villains, than like a tv movie of the week made specifically for TLC (pre-Gosslin) or NatGeo, except you recognize everyone in it. This movie’s cast is insane, especially considering that the majority of them are only making glorified cameos. I don’t want to provide spoilers, but even the trailer gave away that Gwyneth Paltrow is gone pretty early (and in the one truly gruesome scene proceeds to scare the bejeebers out of a pathology team during the autopsy) and is then seen mostly in flashback or in what are prerecorded images for the characters in the film. A few of the roles are defined; most are not. We are never sure who’s supposed to be a “good” guy or a “bad” guy or who we’re supposed to believe. Jude Law's character, a Julian Assange crossed with TMZ-esque blogger (there is actually a line in the movie: “bloggers aren’t writers, they’re graffiti artists with punctuation.”) with a large following,  and whose face appears throughout the film plastered on posters labeled 'Prophet' may or may not be a snake-oil salesman. He's seductive, especially to the conspiracy theorist in me. He's almost creepier than the virus…but is he wrong? The film cleverly makes use of the word viral’s other meaning. Law’s unscrupulous blogger instigates suspicion and promotes conspiracy theories, championing an untested homeopathic treatment for the disease that may or may not have “cured” him.

There is no clearly defined ending in terms of the characters because they don’t have typical story arcs.  (I found it odd that they even have names listed next to the actors in the credits. They aren’t introduced and their names may not even be mentioned.) Kate Winslet is seen providing a lot of medical information as exposition. (Thank goodness for white boards!) Elliott Gould is seen scowling and spouting medical terminology that the lay person couldn’t possibly understand (although that’s not the point) and then he’s gone. Marion Cotillard disappears at the end of the first reel and doesn’t come back until the end. We’re not exactly sure how long she’s been gone or what she was doing or whether or not she was a willing participant and we certainly don’t know what happens to her at the end of the film.

It is well crafted. I liked Soderbergh's technical style, I always have. From the ominously tight close-ups of a hand on a bus pole or in a bowl of bar peanuts, a credit card being swiped and then the use of those ubiquitous touch screens, we learn that it's anything and everything that we come in contact with that's really terrifying. There’s nothing fictitious about this, it could happen. The script does not sensationalize the disease, nor its transmission or methods of treatment and control,  all of which was reportedly based on real scientific methods. The film provides context by comparing this fictional virus (MEV-1) to those we’ve actually encountered in recent years like SARS, the swine flu and H1N1. There are several references to the perception that health officials may have over-reacted to the H1N1 scare, so why should anyone believe them now?

JMHO, but I found the human beings themselves and their reactions to the epidemic much scarier than the virus. The film uses Paltrow’s character’s husband as a kind of control. (If she was patient zero, Mitch, played by Matt Damon, was kind of ‘survivor zero’) He and his teenage daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) spend most of the movie holed up inside their house, quarantined, as the world around them becomes a chaotic nightmare of looting and Internet-fueled panic.

Speaking of the internet, Scenes that seem calculated to instill fear like the shots of panicking shoppers stocking up on bottled water and hand sanitizer or storming pharmacies and even government-run food programs, and most especially of people coughing without covering their mouths – were met with not with gasps, or even nervous laughter, but with silence. I found that especially odd considering that just minutes before several people in the theater were coughing or clearing their throats. I know that realistically, this is little protection just because I can’t see these people or the germs they are sending my way, but it’s one of the many reasons I sit in the front row.

Bottom line, it wasn’t the gripping, edge-of-your seat thrill ride the trailer promised, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Rather than a horror movie it was almost a war movie. The “action” takes place in the lab, complete with selfless acts of bravery. (Jennifer Ehle, as calm and clinical CDC researcher Dr. Ally Hextall, ironically also has the most emotionally-charged scene. Hextall’s father so completely understands the depth of the sacrifice that she’s made, he makes us feel it too.) It’s a wordy, cerebral and, JMHO, realistic, war fought by bureaucrats and medical professionals.

   (out of 5)

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