Thursday, September 15, 2011

‘Contagion’ – infectious thriller!

The mark of a true horror story is the impact it leaves on you after you have left the theater. With ‘Contagion’, you will never look at a person coughing into their hand before they shake yours the same way again. A simple thing as a bowl of peanuts on a bar will never hold the same appeal and the need for hand sanitizer will never be as strong as you walk from the theater wincing as the person next to you sneezes.

Director Steven Soderbergh (‘The Informant’) delivers a potent and very horrifyingly real thriller by employing a documentary like feel with an extremely brisk pace that seems almost unrelenting in a look at just what might happen if a deadly as well as highly communicable new virus spreads into a pandemic. As a viewer we are acutely aware that ANY surface we put our hands on could prove lethal; Soderbergh lingers on this fact as when a sniffling Gwyneth Paltrow walks away from a bar, the camera lingers on the bowl of peanuts she just left; the shot giving this simple bowl an ominous as well as deadly quality. The terror here is the reality of the situation, more terrifying than any hockey masked killer.

Paltrow as Beth Emhoff is the first US victim of the disease she contracted in Hong Kong while on a business trip; returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), she begins the epidemic in the US. It is horrifying to see how quickly a disease of this nature can spread; the virus claims hundreds of lives in a matter of days and quickly spreads exponentially claiming millions of lives in no time at all. Laurence Fishburn is CDC scientist Ellis Cheever, the front line in trying to control the virus as well as figure out a cure. There is also the WHO (World Health Organization) official (Marion Cotillard) who runs the investigation trying to figure out just where the virus started and how it is passed. Meanwhile, a fear mongering blogger (Jude Law in a very effective performance) begins spreading rumors about what the government may or may not be telling the public. It is the rumors that spread almost as fast as the virus which begins to cause wide spread panic among the population.

The story and characters is complex and require a lot of plate spinning. Soderbergh handles this effectively by keeping a distance from the characters, and by maintaining almost a clinical look at them, never diving too deeply into their background, but diving deep enough so that we connect with them. The film itself only runs a little over 100 minutes, and while it adds to the documentary feel and intenseness of the situation, it also shortchanges a couple of storylines. I felt the story of Law’s blogger would have benefitted from a deeper telling as well as the back story on the WHO official played by Cotillard (who tests the vaccine on herself). The story of Emhoff’s husband (Matt Damon) is smartly kept front and center; Damon delivers a fantastic performance and is consistently proving that he is a top tier talent.

The bottom line here, it is not the virus that is the scariest thing in the movie; it is not the getting sick or even how easy it is for something like this to spread. It is just how easy something like this could in fact get out of hand as it is virtually impossible to prepare for. Think about some of the more recent disasters, Katrina as an example; while the resources were mismanaged, the government had a plan and has since modified the plan going forward, simply because this is a KNOWN occurrence. With a virus, it is UNKNOWN until it has reached a proportion that may have already gotten out of hand. In that case, we as a society are already playing catch up – at a point where it may be already too late. That is the true terror; a terror that cannot be chased away when the house lights go up.

So, buy that extra bottle of hand sanitizer and go see this 4 star movie of the year (so far!).

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