Wednesday 12 October 2011

Movie Review: Contagion (2011)

A matter-of-fact medical thriller that enhances its impact by avoiding melodramatics, Contagion is an only slight extrapolation of the recent real-world threats caused by the SARS and H1N1 viruses.

Married businesswoman Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), on a trip to Hong Kong and Macao, contracts an unknown virus. She infects an illicit lover while on a stopover in Chicago before flying home to Minneapolis. Beth dies after suffering violent seizures, as does her young son. Beth's husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is quarantined but proves to be immune to the virus, soon named MEV-1. The virus spreads rapidly throughout Minneapolis, Chicago, and China, and is soon a global threat.

At the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and his team try to identify the virus, the first step towards developing a vaccine. Cheever sends Dr. Mears (Kate Winslett) to Minneapolis to track back the source and warn those who have come in contact with Beth; but Dr. Mears soon succumbs and joins the rapidly lengthening list of victims. Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) of the CDC gets help from Professor Sussman (Elliott Gould) in San Francisco and finally isolates the virus, triggering the frantic rush to develop and test a vaccine.

At the World Health Organization, Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) traces the origins of the outbreak and travels to China. As she gets close to identifying the source, local authorities hold her hostage to ensure that their worst-affected villages receive the vaccine quickly once it is developed. In the meantime, borderline crackpot and pandemic blogger Alan (Jude Law) spreads misinformation and fans the flames of a conspiracy and government cover-up that exist only in his head, confusing the public and adding to the stress of the scientists trying to counter the threat of the lethal super bug. It is finally Dr. Hextall who has to take a calculated risk, if humanity is going to have a chance to turn the tide of annihilation .

Director Steven Soderbergh approaches the Scott Z. Burns script with the precision of a skilled laboratory technician handling toxic material: Contagion's structure most closely resembles a serious documentary, with the filmmakers fortunate enough to have cameras at strategic hot spots as the virus spreads. There are no car chases, evil conspirators, explosions or theatrical deaths: just scientists frantically trying to understand and then control a brutal microscopic foe, and humanity at large struggling to cope.

The ensemble cast performs with uncontaminated competency, Laurence Fishburne coming closest to having a leading role as the fatherly Dr. Cheever, trying to care for his employees while leading the efforts to get ahead of the virus-caused carnage. Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould and Jude Law are all appropriately serious, angry or both as the disease ravages their lives, while Gwyneth Paltrow gets the only carefree role, as Beth is blissfully oblivious to her role in triggering a global nightmare.

In aiming for a sombre chronicling of a mammoth tragedy, Contagion sacrifices any individual emotional or theatrical high points. While this is a mostly welcome departure from the typical Hollywood approach, the film does frequently resemble an elongated nightly newscast, and Contagion becomes an extension of the reality that movies are expected to distract from. The bugs may be deadly, but they would be more memorable if their fictional battle with the humans was as entertaining as it was dangerous.

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