Movie Review: “Contagion”

Written by Barfoot September 19, 2011

These days, films about the end of the world are a dime a dozen. What elevates Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller Contagion above the rest is the plausibility of its doomsday scenario. The film’s commitment to realism and scientific accuracy make it scarier than any zombie film.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on a business trip to Hong Kong when she becomes the first to contract a mysterious, fast-acting virus (I haven’t spoiled anything; it’s in the trailer). Soon she is dead and those she has come into contact with, including a Chinese waiter who collected her martini glass and a British woman who handed her a cell phone, are dying as well.

The film follows a half dozen people in different parts of the world. Some are employees of the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) and Center For Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet) who rush to develop a vaccine as millions fall ill. Others are regular people, like Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), who do their best to survive as society unravels around them.

Soderbergh, best known as the director of Traffic and the Ocean’s Eleven series, is exceedingly competent at handling a sprawling cast. The many loosely interconnected storylines weave together to give a thorough impression of a world gone to hell at a breakneck pace. The film cuts constantly between Chinese slums, medical laboratories, and American suburbia. It’s a testament to the director that the audience is always able to keep up.

The scares in Contagion come when the film demonstrates just how easily a virus can spread through a public place such as a restaurant or an airport. The camera lingers on the surfaces and objects that infected hands have touched. A man coughs and wheezes while riding on a crowded bus; we know he’s just handed out a death sentence to many of those around him. Mundane objects and places take on a menacing quality that will have the hypochondriacs in the audience loading up on hand sanitizer SARS masks the minute the lights go up.

The second half of the movie deals with the breakdown of civil order as people stop going to work and essential services are discontinued. Massive airports sit empty. Stores are looted by panicked mobs. Piles of garbage bags block city streets. The imagery is haunting.

Some of Contagion’s storylines are weaker than others. The plot involving Jude Law’s anti-establishment blogger who stokes the fears of the masses for personal gain seems tonally out of step with the rest of the film, which is mostly successful in avoiding Hollywood sensationalism.

For such a sprawling narrative, the movie is a brisk 106 minutes. Less interested in any one character or plot, Contagion paints a broad picture that turns globalization against us in a terrifying and real way. Not for the squeamish, although science students may get a kick out of the film’s technical accuracy.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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