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Contagion: Captain Trips Rides Again

by Ethan Alter September 9, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Contagion</i>: Captain Trips Rides Again

The killer virus movie has been a Hollywood staple for decades now, but it's interesting to note how differently the genre has been interpreted over the years. For example, 1971's The Andromeda Strain is a low-key mystery, while 1995's Outbreak plays like a flat-out Jerry Bruckheimer-style action movie. Meanwhile, 2002's 28 Days Later and 2007's I Am Legend use their viruses as a gateway to exploring a post-apocalyptic world populated by zombies and vampires respectively. And now we have the industry's latest exercise in viral entertainment, Contagion, which takes the form of a classic procedural, the kind delivered week in and week out on shows like Law & Order and CSI. In fact, the sprawling screenplay by Scott Z. Burns could easily serve as a jumping-off point for an ongoing TV series that tracks the spread of a deadly virus across the country as a sizeable team of brave men and women mobilize to stop it.

Burns and director Steven Soderbergh have certainly gone out of their way to populate Contagion with a cross-section of humanity. Opening in microcosm with Patient Zero -- a businesswoman enjoying a working vacation in Hong Kong (Gwenyth Paltrow) -- the film's universe gradual expands outwards, mimicking, in a sense, the spread of its fictional virus. Returning home to Minnesota, we meet her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and her young son Clark. In two days, both she and the boy will be dead and Mitch will be in quarantine, as scientists study him for any sign of the unnamed disease that's quickly making its presence felt around the world.

In Atlanta, CDC Deputy Director Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) holds a series of increasingly grim videoconferences with international health experts, while the Centers' top researchers like Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) work around the clock to figure out what the virus is and how to fight it. Cheever also dispatches his handpicked investigator Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to the frontlines of Minnesota and the World Health Organization sends its own foot soldier, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), to virus's point of origin in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, across the country in San Francisco, crusading blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) attempts to expose (and profit from) what he calls the CDC's "lies" on his website, where traffic jumps to over 12 million unique visitors as the death toll climbs. And as if that's not already enough people to keep track of, Contagion also introduces us to a few loved ones, including Mitch's teenage daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and Cheever's fiancée (Sanaa Lathan); additional CDC employees, including Hextall's assistant (Demitri Martin) and the janitor (John Hawkes) that Cheever likes to shoot the shit with; and miscellaneous folks, including Cheever's military liaison (Bryan Cranston) and the scientist that first stumbles upon a possible vaccine (Elliot Gould).

With so many characters to service, it stands to reason that there's little room to really plumb the depths of each individual's psyche. But, as years of watching the various Law & Order and CSI franchises have taught us, that's the hallmark of most procedurals -- the case generally takes priority over the people solving it. Indeed, the handful of personal moments that Burns and Soderbergh do sprinkle throughout the film often seem out of place, slowing down the film's otherwise relentless pace. As a day-by-day depiction of a serious viral outbreak, Contagion is an exceptionally well-crafted film, one that feels frighteningly realistic despite the movie star cast. What's particularly disturbing about the scenario we see played out onscreen is how quickly everything breaks down. The bulk of the movie unfolds in a span of roughly three weeks and, in that time, millions die, stores are looted, entire cities are quarantined, states and countries seal their borders and world leaders are sent to "undisclosed locations." And even once a viable cure is found, the disease doesn't go away overnight, as the level of production can't meet the demand. Jumping ahead several months, the last act of the movie explores the delicate politics behind getting the vaccine to everyone that needs it. (Damon's daughter, for example, is forced to wait until her birthday comes up in a random lottery drawing, while Cotillard's WHO doctor is kidnapped by her Hong Kong minders and ransomed for a suitcase full of vaccine-filled syringes.) This material is even more compelling than watching the disease spread, as it touches on issues of class and privilege that too many mainstream movies shy away from.

Even with the limited material they have to play, the A-list ensemble cast is strong across the board, with Winslet and Ehle delivering the film's standout performances. Law is also effectively sleazy as Krumwiede, whose ill-informed conspiracy theories and wrong-headed anti-vaccination tirades make him the closest thing Contagion has to an out-and-out villain. At a time when science is increasingly under attack by various state school boards -- not to mention certain presidential candidates -- the film's unabashed celebration of the good and noble work the scientific community does is more than refreshing... it's necessary. (If the PG-13 rated Contagion inspires even one teen viewer to pursue a career as a virologist, biologist or any other kind of -ist, than we owe the filmmakers a debt of gratitude.) And behind the camera, Soderbergh's direction is reliably deft and focused; few contemporary filmmakers are this adept at juggling multiple storylines and crafting a rich visual style that serves the narrative without overwhelming it. Contagion isn't his best movie (I'd pick Che, King of the Hill and Out of Sight as my personal top three) but it's a model for how to craft mainstream studio fare that's both relevant and entertaining.

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