Contagion: A Viral Video that Often Looks Like a Public Health Announcement

Apocalyptic Thriller's All-Star Cast is Undermined by Incoherent Plotlines

cond 06676 Contagion: A Viral Video that Often Looks Like a Public Health Announcement

Damon.

It is often predicted that the world will no longer end with the whimper of a long, boring war, but with the scream of a fatal, incurable and fast-moving plague. Addressing that theme in time to scare the living daylights out of everybody, Contagion is a star-studded, apocalyptic wake-up call to the horrors that await mankind in a test tube. We’ve made so much progress in terms of immunology, technology, scientific research and medical miracles that the planet considers itself immune to everything from small pox to swine flu. But there’s still no cure for cancer or AIDS, and the canvas of new viruses gets broader every year. So the topicality in Contagion is dark and unquestionable, if not creepy and off-putting. Tracking the global spread of an infectious virus that leads to deadly brain hemorrhages with no vaccine, writer Scott Burns and maverick director Steven Soderbergh have jump-started the serious fall movie season with an ambitious project that packs a wallop without much guarantee of commercial success. We have enough to worry about already; this movie says why bother, since we’re all doomed anyway.

Telling a complex story in a coherent narrative arc has never been one of Mr. Soderbergh’s strengths, and chronicling the day-by-day panic of a killer virus jumps all over the place. Melding elements from diverse sources, the film has a documentary quality that wastes the talents of an impressive A-list cast. The bubonic plague epidemic that wiped out half of Europe in the Middle Ages was finally traced to a contaminated well in a town square. To discover the origin of the mutating horror in Contagion you have to wait until  the very last scene. The trajectory actually begins with Day 2. Feeling ill, a jet-lagged Gwyneth Paltrow returns to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong with a strange cough that leads to a migraine headache. Before her husband (Matt Damon) has time to properly welcome her home, she goes into a seizure, foams at the mouth, and dies in the E.R. Their son is the next victim. Like wildfire, the sickness spreads to the people she met on her trip who begin to gag, sweat and faint from Tokyo to Texas. As the cases multiply, so do the guest stars. At the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, health official Laurence Fishburne puts Kate Winslet, a leading doctor in the field of communicable diseases, in harm’s way to investigate the outbreaks with mortally toxic results. Meanwhile, at World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, researcher Marion Cotillard tries to trace the virus back to its origins in Asia, where she is kidnapped. Isolating people exposed to the virus is hard enough, but how do you quarantine 98 million people in China?

As the plague gains momentum, Homeland Security clocks in, suspecting bioterrorism and requesting sample vaccines to be injected into the drinking water like fluoride. Schools close. Naturally, as in all international crises, there are always the profiteers. After Laurence Fishburne is ordered by the Food and Drug Administration to keep research a secret, Elliot Gould shows up as a scientist who defies the shutdown of his research lab, growing the virus himself and taking credit for a medical breakthrough in print. Meanwhile, Jude Law enters the national radar as a sleazy journalist who makes millions by peddling a false cure in the form of a homeopathic treatment called forsythia. Mr. Soderbergh illumines every shadowy corner of this global pandemic with hypothetical examples of what to expect in an actual case of germ warfare. The Secret Service escorts the president out of Washington,  through an underground passage. Banks, gas stations and public transportation collapse. Nurses go on strike. Hospital generators expire. Pharmacies are looted for bogus serums. Evacuation routes are blocked. Cities are looted and left in trash piles. And while the volume of misinformation builds, here’s a contemporary anxiety to mull over: in the age of Twitter, Facebook and the Internet, it’s easier to reduce an entire civilization to hysterics than ever before. None of the fragmented subplots are followed to a satisfying conclusion. Even after Jennifer Ehle, as a dedicated and heroic lab researcher, ignores government approvals and permissions for human experiments and tests a trial vaccine on herself, inoculations are determined by national lottery depending on birth dates.

Juggling multiple plotlines proved successful in Mr. Soderberg’s Traffic (and even more so in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s vastly superior Babel). Here, the conceit just seems jagged and annoying, without achieving the desired synchronicity. The film often looks like a lengthy public health announcement on the requirements for travel vaccinations. A lot of the medical technology in the dialogue is too technical for the lay mind to grasp.  Who knows from “viral protein cells”? Do stick around for the epilogue—a clever re-enactment of how the virus started, and an explanation of Day 1. The ensemble cast is excellent, if underused. And some of it is downright gasp-inducing, especially when the characters see Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovely head open and the scalp pulled down over her eyes on the operating table. I found Contagion both flawed and fascinating, but it’s not an entertainment.

rreed@observer.com

CONTAGION

Running Time 105 minutes

Written by Scott Z. Burns

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law

2.5/4

Comments

  1. jadez says:

    to bad these movies are just pure propaganda…like..the FALSE cure is homeopathic..the FDA is concerned about peoples health…AIDS has no cure etc etc.

    reality is this ..IF any plague were introduced into the population it would surly have come from some secret lab intentional or not.

  2. andreabeth says:

    “The bubonic plague epidemic that wiped out half of Europe in the Middle Ages was finally traced to a contaminated well in a town square.”
    You are confusing two very different diseases.Cholera was traced to the contaminated well, not bubonic plague. The plague that is thought to have killed one third of Europe began in the 1300’s. The cause of the cholera epidemic was discovered in the 1850’s.

    1. Magic says:

      Wikipedia strikes again.

    2. Misscrient says:

      I caught that historical/biological/pathalogical fact also. Glad someone else questions hese pseudo intellects.

  3. Scott Riedel says:

    Allow me to re-write that review for you:

    AVOID THIS MOVIE LIKE THE PLAGUE!

    Verisimilitude suffers near extinction in this incoherent and
    boring runway of A-list actors! Don’t waste money or two (or was it
    twenty-two?) hours of your life!

  4. Remarc says:

    This movie was a total psyops campaign.  The government is good and only cares about the best interest of us.  The guy at the top of the CDC cares so much he even skips his dose so he can give it to a janitor’s son.  See they really care about the unwashed masses.  They even develop the janitors character, when we first meet him, he is taking out the trash and runs into the head of the CDC and since he knows he is a doctor,  asks him to treat his son’s ADHD.  We learn that janitors do not know the difference between different types of Doctors.  How campy.  They even go on to show that when he learns of classified information he keeps his mouth shut. 
    Anyhow, critics of the government are lairs and self serving thieves.  Homeopathic remedy pushers are snake oil sales men who want to line their pockets.  The government is good and when they are forced to enact gestapo control it is for our own good because the public is easily reduced to savage heathens when scared.  The government makes everything better by providing our food, our security and our vaccine.  This was a waste of a theater experience.  If you know the truth you will see this movie for what it is, a thinly veiled  psyops programing session.  Time to wake up, become informed and forget about the NFL…

  5. TG says:

    The previews looked great, so I went to the first showing and was very disappointed. If you’re unfamiliar with of the concept of a pandemic you might find some value in it, but documentaries on TV have done a much better job. Contagion’s main characters who walk around most of the time without masks or gloves? Lights still on in houses? Whose running the power plants when billions are sick/dead? Lined-up people just shoving and knocking each other over when food has run out? Hell, the recent British and Vancouver riots were more violent! Jeeze. Flat performances and slick ‘hollywood’ production that glosses over the true horror, violence and social breakdown that would happen. Steven Sodererge totally dropped the ball when he had a huge opportunity to make this film truly gripping instead of turning it into a yawn, and Matt Damon’s performance doesn’t hold a candle to Dustin Hoffman’s in 1995’s OutBreak. Lawrence Fishburne could have phoned in his performance from bed he’s so flaccid. To much time spent on the Jude Law character when screen time could have been used to explore many other important aspects of what would really happened during a horrible pandemic. Two thumbs down.

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    Matt Damon’s performance doesn’t hold a candle to Dustin Hoffman’s in
    1995’s OutBreak

  8. Great post.We learn that janitors do not know the difference between different
    types of Doctors.  How campy.  They even go on to show that when he
    learns of classified information he keeps his mouth shut. 

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  10. Imngme40 says:

    Saw the movie last week and couldn’t wait to get in line at my neighborhood Walgreens to get my mighty FLU SHOT!    

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