Sunday, September 18, 2011

CONTAGION (2011)

Written by Scott Z. Burns


Directed by Steven Soderbergh


Where & When: Vista Theater, Los Angeles, CA. September 11, 2011 7:00PM



Have you ever thought about what you would do if a unknown, deadly, airborne virus was gradually wiping out the entire human population?

I sure hope you haven't but if you tend to dwell on dark subjects, then "Contagion", the latest thriller by Steven Soderbergh, gives you the perfect opportunity to envision this chilling scenario. What makes this even more frightening is that the possibility of this actually occurring seems even more plausible considering the current condition of our planet.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in a Chicago airport, waiting to return home to Minneapolis after a business trip in Hong Kong. She has a raspy cough and doesn't feel well but simply assumes it's jet-lag. By the time she arrives home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon) and their son, Beth is feeling much worse with a very high fever. Two days later, Beth has a seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Doctors do all they can but Beth dies but they can't explain the cause of death to her grieving husband. Mitch is barely able to deal with the loss when he is called home by the babysitter but by the time he gets there, his son has also died from the same mysterious ailment.

This virus, which seems to be easily spread from a contaminated person either by touching, coughing or breathing, is killing people not only in the areas that Beth had visited but rapidly across the rest of the globe. Mitch, however, seems to be immune to this virus and he is quarantined and questioned by Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet). She was sent by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the C.D.C to help investigate this growing epidemic.

Over the course of the investigation, doctors struggle to identify the common aspects of the virus while political bureaucracy manages to get in the way, the Department of Homeland Security gets involved, checking to see if this could possibly be a bio weapon and a paranoid, attention-seeking blogger (Jude Law) takes advantage of the fear and the power of the Internet to manipulate the frightened public and to profit from this crisis.

It's seems that Mr. Soderbergh remembers the all-star disaster flicks of the 1970's but instead of a burning skyscraper or a capsized cruise ship, his modern version of that type of film is less over-the-top spectacle and something more grounded in reality which is backed up with plausible science that makes the stakes feel much higher as time is quickly running out.

While "Contagion" seems like a rough outline of what would most likely occur if this situation actually happened but we are never able to connect to the large, global cast of doomed characters as they are either not properly fleshed out or they are not on screen long enough to leave any real impression. All of the big-name actors on board, which includes Marion Cotillard as a doctor from the World Health Organization sent to China to figure out how this virus began but ends up being used as a pawn (and in even smaller roles, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes and Sanaa Lathan), are all fully committed but because of time constraints, all of their star-power is wasted in parts that don't add up to much more than cameos. Only Jennifer Ehle, as the doctor who works desperately on trying to create a vaccine, in a quiet but effective performance leaves any impact.

Mr. Soderbergh has always been one of the more adventurous film makers working today and although not everything he has made has been worthy of overwhelming praise but every film has been refreshingly challenging as well as offering thoughtful and unconventional ideas (including his more commercial ventures) while never feeling like a waste of time or energy. "Contagion" presents a relatively, mainstream sci-fi thriller combined with his trademark idiosyncratic film making which is accomplished with a sharp screenplay, although the final resolution feels a bit too tidy and unbelievably fast.

"Contagion" is a fascinating look how human beings react and behave during an unimaginable crisis but the film doesn't leave a deep or lasting impression although it certainly creates a certain sense of paranoia. It will probably encourage people to stock up on hand sanitizer and become a little bit more nervous when they hear somebody cough.