Contagion

Contagion

****

Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

Steven Soderbergh may be scrubbing down his movie slate for a career shift into painting but for now we get to enjoy another of his dexterously choreographed, ensemble thrillers. Contagion wraps its global scale smartly around a shrinking world to make a slick, sickly disaster movie for our times.

We start on Day 2, with Gwyneth Paltrow returning from a Hong Kong business trip to her home in Minneapolis. Coughing and looking a tad peaky, it’s not long before she’s keeling over in front hubby Matt Damon. She's infected with a new, highly contagious and deadly flu-like virus and has flown halfway round the planet spreading its unlucky charms. As a pandemic quickly proliferates, the race is on for the authorities to trace Gwyneth’s Patient Zero, find a cure and avoid total civil breakdown.

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Contagion easily throws back to the disaster movies of the Seventies with its impressive cast of Oscar alumni variously fretting around the central catastrophe. Soderbergh marshals the good and the great with expert Traffic control, smoothly flitting across continents from Laurence Fishburne’s senior scientist, to Marion Cotillard’s investigations in China and Kate Winslet’s doctor in the eye of the storm. The familiar trope of naming each city visited onscreen is discomfited by the addition of population counts. This also ups the sense of scale and helpless peril and lends credence to the death tolls as they become stratospheric.

The sequences that track the lethal transference through every day life are deliciously disturbing. A cough here, a hand smear there, an innocent touch to the mouth; the wholly identifiable mundanity of it will certainly leave some viewers squirming. Indeed, many a cinema-goer might think twice about taking public transport home. Played out to a pulsating electro track, these moments are actually the most plainly thrilling and Soderbergh turns them as smoothly as a Danny Ocean heist.

This killer flu feels like a contemporary calamity, despite the disaster movie provenance and medical history telling us otherwise. Something else is propagating, shunted along by Jude Law's militant Australian blogger. When his anti-establishment exposés garner him global internet fame, a more up to date viral campaign comes into play. Tie this in with hedge fund managers, US healthcare and global politicking and you have the modern context of Scott Z Burn’s brisk and efficient screenplay.

Millions of people die horribly, but Burn’s finds the horror staples amongst the survivors. Urban communities fracture with alarming alacrity and society's civil and moral infrastructures decline so that your looting, marauding neighbours are as much a threat as the virus. Recent events could give these scenes an added resonance for some. Matt Damon’s family man takes us through most of them, although all the major characters have to make moral choices and it is by this, perhaps too simplistic, token that they rise and fall.

The performances are uniformly solid. Law gives his belligerent cyber-leaks villain gusto but Winslet and Jennifer Ehle’s doctors stand out, pulling off the ‘science bits’ with convincing verve. Cotillard, however, is hamstrung by the machinations of her mini-story. They hit increasingly off notes, speaking most overtly to the (western) political agenda and so strain for credibility as a result.

After a compelling start and a long, immersive second act, sadly Contagion starts to peter out towards the end. Any conclusion, although apparently based on scientific fact rather than fiction, cannot live up to the choice tension and threat that has accumulated before it. Some storylines start to wrap up rather contritely and it's left to Matt Damon's all-American dad and daughter duo to give us the emotional pay off. You may buy this is you’re one for an old U2 song, otherwise maybe not.

While not as thrilling as one might expect, Contagion is at times gripping, enjoyably foreboding and dependably entertaining. Released just in time for those autumnal colds to start doing the rounds.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2011
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A thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak.
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Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z Burns

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law

Year: 2011

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

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