Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Going Viral: CONTAGION


The screen is dark. The theater is silent save for one ragged cough echoing in the speakers. Suddenly the screen comes alive with a cut to a clearly ill woman – puffy red eyes, pale skin – sitting at an airport bar talking on her cell phone while rummaging in a small bowl of complimentary peanuts. She coughs again. She’s tired. “Jet lag,” she says. “Day Two,” an ominous subtitle announces. It has already begun.

This is the opening of Contagion, the newest film from Steven Soderbergh. It reteams him with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns who wrote his corporate espionage comedy The Informant!, but there’s nothing funny about their new collaboration. Closer in spirit, if not depth, to Soderbergh’s drug-war epic Traffic, Contagion soberly, seriously, and single-mindedly portrays a global pandemic. It starts with a new strain of a disease, deadly variations on common ailments. Once infected, a person is contagious without knowing it, spreading it to those nearby. Then, flu-like symptoms set in. Then come the seizures. Then, all too often, comes death. By then, there are already more people to count among the growing numbers of the infected.

It all starts with the woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the opening scene. She’s returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong.  Her husband (Matt Damon) and her son (Griffin Kane) are concerned about her, as her symptoms grow ever increasingly worse. A film of massive scope starts small, with this little family unit, but grows larger and larger as the virus makes its way across the planet. We meet scientists (Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin) tasked with analyzing the disease that has suddenly appeared in Minnesota. Could it have a connection to the mysterious ailment that is affecting certain villages in China? And now there are reports of this strain in London, in Hong Kong, in Chicago. Who came into contact with this one sick woman who happened to cross the globe, who infected her and where did they take the infection? Or is she the source?

The disease spreads. The ensemble grows. At the Center for Disease Control, urgent meetings are held. They’re in contact with the scientists, but no one seems to be able to say for sure what is happening. Laurence Fishburne sends Kate Winslet to Minnesota to investigate what they have taken to calling “Ground Zero.” Overseas, the World Health Organization sends Marion Cotillard to Hong Kong, where they’re working with their own leads. All want to understand this ailment, so that they can cure it. Contracting the disease is not quite a death sentence – some of the sick do survive – but it’s close enough. Everywhere the cameras turn, there are new characters to puzzle through the mess with us, a general (Bryan Cranston), bureaucrats (Chin Han and Enrico Colantoni), even a confident conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) who sees it all coming, posting a viral video of a Chinese man collapsing on a bus, all the while ranting about evil pharmaceutical companies and pure natural remedies. But for all his sense of righteous certainty, he’s no more capable of stopping the pandemic than the ones in power that he castigates.

For all the explanations, the crinkling scientific dialogue and the pulsing montages, the essential source of fear remains elusive. It’s essentially a zombie movie without the zombies. Death is slowly, relentlessly coming. You can hole up, you can hide, but it will inevitably arrive. There’s an invisible source of creeping dread that could infect you and kill you, but not before you spread it to your family and friends. It’s a slow motion freak-out. Soderbergh pays attention to the surfaces we come into contact with on a daily basis. Buttons, knobs, handles, and counters become simple sources of anxiety. He holds the camera an extra beat when someone presses against a door, or punches information into a computer. No one has to speak the word “germs” to start the unsettling sense of grim distress. By the time the world is in a full-blown panic over the pandemic, rioting, looting, protesting, worrying, the germs are only part of the problem.

The characters are moved about as pawns in the cold what-if scenario, this pandemic epic. It’s an extraordinary cast, movie stars expertly deglamourized and not at all safe, but the disease is the real star. This holds the movie back to a certain extent, keeping the characters at a slight distance, as it spends its time reveling in the nuts-and-bolts of its elaborately staged outbreak while allowing the human element to stretch thin.

The film doesn’t seem too concerned with depth of character, though. It’s really only out to send shivers into audiences with its sole meticulous purpose to put out a chilly, convincing bio disaster scenario. Soderbergh uses his considerable skills as a filmmaker to create a fast pace and a believable atmosphere, effortlessly cutting between the dozens of characters and locations, juggling perhaps too many plotlines. His camera stares with cold hues and unblinking detachment at the dead bodies, the computer screens, the press conferences, the roundtable meetings, and all those potentially deadly shared surfaces. It’s all too real. It doesn’t have a satisfying ending, but how could it?

It doesn’t resolve so much as coast to a stop, but the journey there is terrifying.
This is not a movie for hypochondriacs. It drives forward with nothing more to do than feed on the fear of contagion. It’s effective and persuasive, unadorned with obvious embellishment. I’m not often inventing symptoms, but that’s what I was doing while watching this film. I found myself shifting in my seat, my popcorn untouched, keeping my hands away from my face as my throat grew scratchy and I fought the urge to cough.

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