Cinema Review: Contagion

don't touch me I'm matt-damon

DIR: Steven Soderbergh • WRI: Scott Z. Burns • PRO: Gregory Jacobs, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Stephen Mirrione • DES: Howard Cummings • CAST: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow

Premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival, there’s a huge amount of buzz around Contagion
– so much so that the US release date was brought forward to the weekend of 9/11, a time when people are remembering a terrifying event that affected – and killed – thousands of people.

This marketing tactic might be a lucky coincidence, but either way, does Contagion – a story about the fictional MEV-1 virus that wreaks havoc across the world – live up to the hype? It certainly starts at a breakneck pace with scary scenes that’ll ensure you wash your hands more often and stop touching your face (you do it about 3,000 times a day).

Contagion actually begins with the sound of a cough. It’s Day 2, and in a Chicago airport Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) is calling her lover. She’s been away on business in Hong Kong and is now going home to her husband and kids. Within a day she’s having seizures, and soon after she’s on the slab. They buzzsaw her skull open, check out her brain, and the Medical Examiner says those classic words: ‘Call everyone’.

Her son dies right afterwards too, leaving somehow-immune husband Mitch (Damon) and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) separated by a temporary quarantine and unwilling first witnesses to the fury of an unknown and deadly virus.

Others are falling like flies in London and Hong Kong, and soon the hunt is on to find what’s killing everyone. At the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, head honcho Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) is trying to stay in control as Homeland Security starts getting twitchy, and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is beginning to organize what the mounting numbers of sick and dying are going to need.

As the virus slowly infects the planet, World Health Organization doctor Leonara Orantes (Cotillard) is trying to find Patient Zero: who they were and where they were infected on Day 1, while back in Atlanta in the CDC lab, Dr. Ally Hextall (Ehle) is trying to isolate the virus and find a vaccine.

Out on the streets in San Francisco is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, sporting a ridiculous pair of gappy front teeth and showcasing an Australian or possibly South African accent), a blogger and conspiracy theorist who believes the Government and chemical companies are all in cahoots, and that there might be another antidote. He fuels the fire of panic, and soon State borders are closing and the National Guard are on the streets… yet still the death toll rises.

Director Soderbergh brings his slick, crowd-pleasing Ocean’s 11 skills to bear here, setting up a cracking premise quickly and laying the path for a story that promises to have everything; an unseen enemy, a hopeless situation, a cast of heroes fighting for their fellow humans (even if it means their own sacrifice) and a race against time.

We’re in classic disaster movie territory, yet Contagion falls short of the mark because it fails to give anything emotional for the audience to connect too. Sure, people are dying by the truck load – including cast members – but with so many of them in so many places, there’s never enough time to get to know them.

With barely any idea of what’s at stake for them – and what decisions they might make as a result – it’s hard to care that much. Also, sometimes it’s so long before you come back to a character that you’ve not only almost forgotten about them, but didn’t see how they reacted to the escalating disaster: they weren’t frozen in amber, were they?

In attempting to raise the level of tension and make this a film that appeals to everyone across the world – infectious diseases are no respecter of boundaries or oceans – it actually distances the audience, seeming too often to be more of an extreme environmentalist video about ‘what might happen one day.’

The chronic lack of action – it’s all about boardrooms – is a problem too, and at times the film really drags. That’s not a good thing when there’s a parasitic time bomb exploding, soldiers on the streets and people looting and killing – the bubble around the cast needed to be broken.

The much-trumpeted desire to be scientifically accurate but not boring (screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh worked for several weeks with Dr. Ian Lipkin, a scientist renowned for his work on SARS and the West Nile Virus) is something the film accomplishes well, but sadly it isn’t enough to compensate, and instead ends up diverting the human focus even more.

Finally, it stretched credulity beyond the borders of belief when, throughout the film, Matt Damon’s family home always seemed to have electricity, his daughter her mobile phone, and Jude Law his website. In the US at least, hot weather regularly causes power cuts, and everyone knows how often their internet access crashes or their mobiles suddenly cut out, yet in the midst of disaster the Emhoff lights were blazing. Really? With society in chaos and disarray?

It was just another thing that made Contagion far less thrilling – and believable – than it clearly meant to be (and probably really is), so overall it’s an entertaining but forgettable diversion, one that – I admit – did have me shifting in my seat every time someone in the cinema coughed…

James Bartlett

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Contagion is released on 21st October 2011

Contagion – Official Website

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