Copyright MainstreamMatt/Mainstream 2005-2011
Movies chronicling the effects of a disease epidemic have spread throughout the moviegoers consciousness for the past twenty years; Outbreak, 28 Days Later, and even this months Ewan McGregor/Eva Green offering, Perfect Sense, have all dealt with varying degrees of severity of “the lurgy”. So what makes Contagion a more feverish prospect?
It’s the poster splattered with A-List names, all under the gaze of a man who knows how to orchestrate an ensemble (Oceans 11-13), Steven Soderbergh. Collectively they could be the perfect DNA for a quality examination of an increasingly volatile society being tested to its limits; religiously, economically, and ethically.
And to some degree it is. Contagion is a no-frills, clinical depiction of what would happen if swine and/or bird flu had been the global disaster that the media panicked us into believing. Much like a disease, it’s cold, fast moving, and Damon’s thread aside, has very little time for emotion beyond the surface level.
Soderbergh gives us numerous strands to follow; Mitch (Damon) has half of his family decimated within the space of a morning after his wife (Paltrow) returns from a business trip in Japan. Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is sent to the land of the rising sun to trace the timeline, whilst back in the US, Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) is assigned the task of containing the outbreak by her boss (Fishburne), by setting up a Hurricane Catrina paralleling, temporary stadium for the sick.
And that’s only half the story, so it’s testament to the Traffic director that he manages to juggle all of the threads into a coherent narrative that’s propelled along with snappy editing and a structure that never allows the film to settle in one time zone for more than five minutes. There are no tedious meet-the-character set-ups before the virus finally escapes; the audience is dropped straight into the start of the crisis and we are left to gather what information we can about the characters from the many talky scenes.
Some may find this alienating for a film that’s about mass death, and that’s a valid point, so it’s left to Matt Damon to be the empathic device, which he does very well by presenting the everyman for the viewer to project upon. Others aren’t as successful in their minimal roles, with Jude Law’s wonky Australian accent providing the only amusement in a relentlessly depressing film.
Refreshingly smart, and at times genuinely terrifying, unfolding like a movie adaptation of a breaking story on Sky News (other rolling live news channels are available), with recognisable terminology and imagery striking a cultural chord, but perhaps it’s a little too sterile and superficial in the emotion department to really succeed.