Friday, September 16, 2011

'Contagion' a thoughtful, human drama

In “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh's pandemic film, the movie “Jaws” is directly referenced. This is fitting because just as “Jaws” scared people out of the water, “Contagion” will surely make people second guess touching, well, everything. “Contagion” is a germaphobe's worst nightmare. 
In the last few years we've had our share of overhyped pandemic scares with  swine and bird flu. “Contagion” imagines a bird flu-like virus that is far more virulent and deadly. Instead of killing thousands, it kills millions and is spread merely by touch.
The film isn't an end-of-the world disaster film. Yes, we do see glimpses of rioting and pillaging, which given the recent chaos in London, feels all too timely, but the film is more focused on the pursuit of a cure and how society might actually react to this situation. The movie doesn't go for cheap scares, but creates an atmosphere of paranoia and unease.
Similar to Soderbergh's “Traffic,” the film follows several parallel stories. These storylines are kept self-contained with only some overlapping here and there. Matt Damon is featured in the main plotline in which a husband loses both his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son to the virus. He is immune to the disease and is extremely protective of his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) as it is unclear if she has his immunity.
Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jude Law is a blogger with dubious intentions and Marion Cotillard works for the World Health Organization. 
The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns focuses not so much on the spread of the virus, but of fear and misinformation. Burns also raises interesting moral and ethical questions. Fishburne informs his wife to leave the city before there is an official public announcement. Is that the wrong thing to do? Perhaps, but who wouldn't have done the same thing in his position? 
Damon is very strong as a husband and father that in very short order loses nearly everything. Left with only his daughter, he focuses all his energy on keeping her safe. Their dynamic is an interesting one. Jacoby-Heron becomes frustrated that she can never leave the house, but at the same time she honors her father's wishes. There is a very sweet scene in which Damon makes his daughter a prom right in their home.
Law gives a slimey, yet ambiguous performance. His character is perhaps the least likable in the film, but even he has moments of humanity and raises issues that are valid and worth exploring. Fishburne plays the perfect boss. He has an interesting relationship with Winslet in which not only is he her superior, but offers himself as a confidant and support.
Of all the plots, Cotillard's story is the one that gets shorted. She is kidnapped by a fellow researcher (Chin Han) to ensure that his dying village in China is one of the first to get a vaccination. The plot is dropped for a while and the next time we see her she isn't a captive, but a teacher working with the children of the village. How this transformation occurs is not seen.
Paltrow's performance is brief and contained mostly to flashbacks. Scenes of her seizure and death are deeply disturbing. Elliott Gould makes a small, but memorable appearance as a researcher that makes a breakthrough in discovering a cure.
A lot of other familiar faces make appearance in the film including Bryan Cranston, Enrico Colantoni and Demetri Martin. From the biggest to the smallest roles everyone fills their parts well. This is great ensemble cast working with a strong script.
Despite advertisements that make this look like a thriller, this is well acted, thoughtful drama that puts a very human face on what might happen if there ever truly was a pandemic.

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