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September 14, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
Life as we know it came crashing down before my eyes, three or maybe four times last Friday night. And that was just the trailers. “Contagion” hadn’t even started yet.
No one is immune —well, except Matt Damon — in Steven Soderbergh’s pulse-quickening thriller that follows a chance encounter between a pig and some bird poop into a lethal influenza epidemic that quickly circles the globe.
Although the death count eventually reaches into the millions, “Contagion’s” first casualty is “The Help.” After staying atop the box office charts for three weeks for all the right reasons — great acting, good writing, righteous cause — there’s something sad in seeing the hopeful, inspiring drama of “The Help” knocked from the top spot by an invisible menace from a time and place before “going viral” was thought of as high praise for good marketing.
For all the human strengths — and failings — observed in “The Help,” we humans turn out to be stationary targets for certain simple-celled organisms invisible to the naked eye. These viruses add insult to influenza by apparently being “smarter” than we are —or at least being able to mutate faster than we can find means of destroying them.
Soderbergh employs a strategy similar to the one that won four Oscars for “Traffic” in 2001: Create an ensemble of past and future Oscar winners, then thrust them into a ripped-from-the-headlines mix of science and paranoia as physicians, researchers and health administrators battle to find a cure for this previously unknown disease. Damon is joined in this quixotic mission by Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and others as the clock ticks and the body count mounts. Along with the stuff going on under the microscope, there’s the escalating chaos right outside the windows, ranging from urban looting to shutting down state borders.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a cough … Indeed, the refrain running through many of the film’s laudatory reviews is: Wash your hands!
While the urgency and scope of “Contagion” make it one of those important movies —intensified by knowing that those Oscar-winning cast members are liable to have their convulsive death scenes at any moment —why do you leave the theater feeling so unaffected?
Despite all the talent on both sides of the camera, it’s too much information, not enough drama. Seeing civilization so meekly fall victim to these microscopic forces of nature is pretty depressing to begin with. Throwing in all the supposed medical science just makes the audience feel that much more helpless.
Unlike great screenwriters who help audiences grasp complicated situations as they tell their stories, “Contagion’s” Scott Z. Burns has the opposite effect: His script lets you know how smart he is … and you’re not.
While the film is ultimately heroic in its mission to save the world, the concept of squeezing an apocalyptic epidemic into two hours was better served by drive-in double features of past decades than to such an Oscar-pedigreed, high-minded project as this one.
Its barrage of data, from medical labs to Washington corridors of power, doesn’t leave its stellar cast much room to establish their characters. Ironically, it is the least appealing role — Jude Law as a conspiracy-theorizing, fear-mongering, icy nerved blogger — that may be the film’s best performance.
The funny thing about “Contagion” — well, not literally funny, of course — is that it’s focusing on the wrong epidemic.
In fact, the film itself is part of a more dangerous one. Its underlying theme — that our modern, speed-of-light, globally wired, high-tech-addicted world provides camouflage for evil forces of nature to kill us is hardly a hopeful recipe for living on the planet. It’s based on a tried-and-true principle of entertainment: We have nothing to sell but fear itself.
Rather than the fictional virus at the center of “Contagion,” it’s this pervasive, undifferentiated fear that poses the real threat to our health as a society. Using a supercharged delivery system to bring half-truths onto the ever-present screens in our lives, the media bombard us with things to be afraid of, from germs to economics to politics. Just as “Contagion’s medical “science” feels just beyond the audience’s ability to grasp, so does life in general these days.
It’s no wonder that Jude Law’s cynical, self-serving blogger has such an easy time peddling his paranoid conspiracy theories and cyber snake oil in such an environment. “Contagion” is operating on the same principle and hoping for the same result.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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