Injecting some life in a viral disaster
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sep 09, 2011
"Contagion," a thinking man's horror movie about a viral pandemic from the writing-directing team of Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!"), plays less like a conventional medical thriller - think "Outbreak" - than like a dramatic reading of a "Nova" episode, performed by Hollywood's elite. It's stuffed with A-list actors - Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Elliott Gould - running around frowning and spitting out terms like "pathognomonic," "fomites," "paramyxovirus," "phylogenetic" and "R-naught number."
A few of them are defined; most are not. That's the scariest thing about "Contagion." We never know exactly what it is we're supposed to be afraid of, as one character notes, early in the film.
Then again, that's not entirely true. Based on Soderbergh's shooting style in the film's first few seconds, which include ominously tight close-ups of a hand on a bus pole and a bowl of cocktail peanuts in a bar, it's anything and everything that we come in contact with that's terrifying. I'll guarantee you one thing: Before this movie is over, you will stop unconsciously touching your face (or, if you're a critic, sticking your pen in your mouth). What "Psycho" did for showers, "Contagion" aims to do for shaking hands and shared water glasses.
Otherwise, "Contagion" is not all that disturbing, except perhaps on an intellectual level.
That's partly due to Soderbergh's restraint. The script, which is reportedly based on solid scientific research about disease and its transmission, treatment and control, is admirably unsensationalistic. And that's even considering the fact that the virus at the heart of the story - dubbed MEV-1, though what that stands for is never explained - has a shorter and more lethal incubation period than anything we've previously seen. (SARS, swine flu, H1N1 - "Contagion" drops the names of real-life medical scares like mad.)
Paltrow, whose Beth Emhoff is the first to come down with the new disease, is dead mere minutes into the movie, after lapsing into a scary, mouth-frothing seizure. "Oh, my God," says the coroner upon opening up her skull and seeing what's inside, "should I call someone?" "Call everyone," replies his frightened colleague.
Hundreds of millions of victims follow, though Beth's husband, Mitch, played by a schlubby-looking Matt Damon, remains immune, both from the bug and from our emotions. As a hero, the film treats him with an oddly clinical detachment.
Rather than putting Mitch in the thick of things, "Contagion" pretty much sends him into immediate quarantine. Along with his teenage daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), Mitch spends most of the movie sensibly holed up inside his house, as the world around him descends into a chaos of looting and Internet-fueled panic.
One of the film's cleverest touches involves a secondary sense of the word viral. Using the Web as his pulpit, an unscrupulous blogger (Law) foments government conspiracy theories from the sidelines, touting an untested homeopathic "cure" for the disease called forsythia.
Law's character, a shadowy, Julian Assange-like demagogue called Alan Krumwiede - whose face appears, throughout the film, plastered on posters labelled "Prophet" - is funny and seductive. He's almost creepier than MEV-1.
And speaking of creepy, several scenes that seem calculated to frighten - shots of panicky shoppers stocking up on bottled water and hand sanitizer, and of people coughing without covering their mouths - were met with not with gasps, but with titters of nervous laughter.
Though "Contagion's" trailer would have you believe it's a nail-biter, its pleasures are mostly cerebral, not visceral. Its real heroes are not the Homeland Security officers (led by a dour Brian Cranston) who initially attribute the plague to bioterrorism, or even Damon, who, as the biggest name in the movie, is mysteriously underutilized.
Instead, they're the buttoned-down bureaucrats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (run by Fishburne) and the medical professionals working behind the scenes to identify, treat and contain the disease (Winslet, Cotillard and others). The breakthroughs in the action, if it can even be called that, come not in the field but in the lab, first with the replication of the virus by a protocol-busting researcher (Gould), and then with the discovery of a possible vaccine, administered in her own thigh in an act of selfless bravery by a CDC researcher (Jennifer Ehle).
If this is an action-thriller, it's one that makes med school look sexier than the Marines.
Contains brief obscenity, some violence and a mildly grisly autopsy scene.