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‘Contagion’ is gritty realism in search of a point

Virus movie has feel of a documentary, but storyline is all too familiar

POSTED: September 8, 2011 12:30 a.m.
Claudette Barius/AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures

Anna Jacoby-Heron, left, and Matt Damon are shown in a scene from the film "Contagion."

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The word "sobering" was coined for movies like "Contagion."

Director Steven Soderbergh's latest tells the story of an unknown virus that spreads across the world at an alarming pace and threatens to wipe out much of the population.

That idea is anything but new. The list of movies based on an out of control viral epidemic is long. "The Andromeda Strain," "The Stand," "Outbreak," "Twelve Monkeys," "28 Days Later," "28 Weeks Later," and hundreds of other movies and television episodes have riffed on the scenario for one effect or another.

However, none of those movies approached the subject with the cold realism we find in "Contagion."

The trailers make it look like a thriller or disaster movie. Big-name director, star-studded cast, lots of paranoia. This could be "The Towering Inferno" or "The Poseidon Adventure."

But "Contagion" couldn't be more different from those movies. It's an almost documentary-style examination of how the world would respond if a massive viral epidemic would happen, and there is almost nothing implausible in this movie. It could all really happen, and this is pretty much how it would happen.

The story begins with a married woman from Minneapolis, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), on a business trip to Hong Kong. She has a fun night at a casino during which she comes into contact with several people. During a layover in Chicago, she cheats on her husband with an old lover.

By the time Beth returns home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), she is very ill. She has a seizure on the kitchen floor, Mitch rushes her to the hospital and within hours she is dead. The doctors don't know what caused it. A few more hours later, Beth's and Mitch's son dies in the same way.

Meanwhile, a young man in Hong Kong, a Chinese businessman, a model in London, and Beth's lover in Chicago all die from the same mysterious virus.

One of the things "Contagion" does best is show how easily and quickly something like this spreads. Everything and everyone that the first few people touched or breathed on now carries the virus, and its victims multiply exponentially.

This is extremely familiar and, therefore, scary. It's what we were warned could happen with SARS, H1N1 and other real epidemics.

That's also one of the movie's weaknesses. We have lived through the early stages of real epidemics. I've already seen this story play out on the evening news. The movie's next steps are all too predictable.

The World Health Organization starts to investigate in the form of Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), who goes to Hong Kong and scans casino surveillance footage to trace the origins of the virus. Soderbergh uses sharply edited, very effective montages for these sequences, which take on the feel of a mystery story. They are some of the movie's best scenes.

The Centers for Disease Control also get on the case. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to investigate known cases and control the public response. Cheever assigns Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) to research the virus and develop a vaccine.

Blogger and watchdog Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), meanwhile, tries to expose the government's lies and half-truths, and once in a while he makes some very valid points.

Several other subplots run through the movie. Soderbergh brings his trademark intimate style to a sprawling narrative much like he did in "Traffic."

Ultimately, though, I'm not sure it's a good thing in this case that Soderbergh has created something so slavishly realistic. He used "Traffic" to make profound points about addiction, the drug trade and the so-called War on Drugs. With "Contagion," I'm not sure what the point was.

The movie is plausible from beginning to end and punctuated by moving acts of heroism. Despite offering more outstanding filmmaking from one of our most interesting directors, it all left me merely lukewarm.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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