Today: April 17, 2024

Contagion

In a string of films in the ‘70s, Irwin Allen, the legendary ‘Master of Disaster,’ filled the screen with the biggest stars he could get and killed them one by one in horrible ways. Killer bees in The Swarm, burning skyscrapers in The Towering Inferno, a volcano in When Time Ran Out, a tidal wave and Telly Savalas in The Poseidon Adventure and Beyond The Poseidon Adventure respectively.

In a string of films in the ‘70s, Irwin Allen, the legendary ‘Master of
Disaster,’ filled the screen with the biggest stars he could get and killed
them one by one in horrible ways.
Killer bees in The Swarm, burning skyscrapers in The Towering Inferno, a
volcano in When Time Ran Out, a tidal wave and Telly Savalas in The Poseidon
Adventure and Beyond The Poseidon Adventure respectively.

Big on action and spectacle while
skimping on characterisation, Allen’s films were both the high and low points
of the ‘70s disaster movie genre, his casting of huge stars, a visual shorthand
for the audience. You don’t need
to know that Fire Chief’s backstory – he’s Steve McQueen! You’ve seen him in loads of other
films. A man’s man. Always the hero. That’s all the backstory you need. And that crusading entomologist
battling killer bees is played by Michael Caine. What more do you need to know? And isn’t that William Holden who’s playing the guy who’s
skeptical about the erupting volcano being dangerous? Didn’t he play a guy who was skeptical about fire safety in The Towering Inferno? Darn tooting he did! Irwin cast to type, filling his films
full of stars you knew, stars you’d seen play essentially the same roles in a
dozen movies.

With Contagion, Steven Soderbergh
has torn a leaf from Allen’s playbook, putting his own coolly intelligent spin
on what is essentially a modern disaster movie and filling his cast with
talented, recognisable actors, most (but not all) cast to type.

Flying home to Minneapolis from
Hong Kong, businesswoman Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a layover in Chicago for a spot of
extra-curricular nookie before returning to husband Mitch (Matt Damon). She’s got a bit of a sniffle, maybe
it’s a winter flu, but surely nothing to worry about, right? Next morning, over breakfast, Beth
starts fitting, is rushed to hospital and dies. Maybe it was meningitis. Maybe encephalitis.
Then her son dies with exact same symptoms…

As the mystery disease spreads
like wildfire, engulfing the globe, and sleazy conspiracy theorist and blogger
Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) fans the
flames of panic, embattled Deputy Director of the U.S. Centre for Disease
Control, Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne),
leads an international team of scientists (Kate
Winslet
, Marion Cotllard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould) in a desperate race against time to develop a vaccine
while everyman Mitch watches society slide towards anarchy.

Precise, harrowing and tightly
controlled, Soderbergh’s Contagion
is a terrifying, quietly brilliant, almost forensic film. Echoing the HIV, ebola, swine and bird
flu scares of recent years and drawing on the post-World War One Spanish Flu
epidemic, Soderbergh eschews the wham-bam action potential of the zombie
apocalypse that’s so popular at the moment in favour of a gritty, grimly
convincing vision of what the reality of a global pandemic might be like. The authorities are ill-prepared and
can’t cope, bureaucrats argue over budgets and rioters loot stores for quack
remedies.

Unlike other recent films (Perfect Sense springs to mind), when
faced with impending extinction, Soderbergh’s scientists don’t get horny and
jump on Ewan McGregor. They roll their sleeves up (or in the
case of Jennifer Ehle, tape their sleeves down and put on a giant space suit)
and get down to the business of trying to save the world.

With the exception of Jude Law’s
self-serving, boo-hiss, journalist who’s so dastardly he should have a
moustache to twirl, Soderbergh has peopled his film with a cast of
recognisable, flawed but decent human beings whose actions and decisions have
consequences and the situations he puts them in feel real. Fishburne’s well-meaning Cheever sparks
a panic when he warns a loved one to get out of Chicago before it’s
quarantined. Winslet’s dedication
leads to her being infected with the disease. Scientists Gould and Ehle break with procedure and maybe
find a cure. Damon’s father is so
determined to save his daughter from disease he is forced to make her a virtual
prisoner in their own home. But
these situations feel real. Damon
doesn’t suddenly turn into an action hero, steal a helicopter and fly his
daughter off to a mythical safe haven.
He simply hunkers down at home, tries to make life as normal as possible
(staging a prom night in the living room for his daughter) and waits for the
scientists to sort it out.

The performances are terrific with
Damon as reliable as ever as the solid everyman forced to deal not only with a
global pandemic but his dead wife’s infidelity. Law does the best he can with his underwritten part, chewing
the scenery as the selfish blogger who in an obvious nod to Julian Assange and
Rupert Murdoch is a fair dinkum Aussie while Fishburne is dependable as the
beleaguered CDC boss. The lion’s
share of world saving rests on the shoulders of the film’s women however with
Winslet giving her best performance in years as the driven but doomed scientist
who gets too close to her patients while Jennifer Ehle’s modest, quietly
courageous scientist walks away with the film, the ridiculous inflatable hazmat
suits she wears throughout failing to mask her subtle, luminous
performance.

Flitting around the world in the
style of a techno-thriller, Soderbergh shows us a world slipping inexorably
towards chaos, panic and paranoia before stopping, sorting itself out, dealing
with the situation and coming out the other side. While the ill-judged sub-plot which sees Marion Cotillard’s
epidemiologist kidnapped and held to ransom by a Chinese village feels pretty
superfluous, Soderbergh doesn’t waste a moment of your time delivering a tense,
vivid film which doesn’t let up, propelling you towards an ultimately hopeful
conclusion.

A scary cautionary tale for the
hypochondriac in all of us, if nothing else, Contagion will make you paranoid about that guy sneezing two rows
away and will have you compulsively washing your hands like Lady Macbeth with
OCD for weeks to come.

Plus, if you’ve always wanted to
see Gwyneth Paltrow’s head peeled like a grape, Contagion doesn’t disappoint.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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