It’s a sick, sick, sick, sick world – Contagion review

Contagion – Starring Matt DamonLaurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rated M. Originally published October 19, 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

Contagion is the last movie you want to see with a sore throat. Or maybe it’s the first movie you want to see with a sore throat. What could possibly top the sensory, 4-D, cinema-going experience of feeling your tonsils swell as images of sweaty, wheezing, flu-ridden infectees flicker before you? Steven Soderbergh’s latest ensemble drama is the most effective ad for Purell not actually commissioned by the hand sanitiser manufacturers … that we know of. Did Soderbergh or screenwriter Scott Z. Burns purchase a hefty load of shares in the company before beginning production? Might be worth looking into. Aside from that, Contagion is also a captivating outbreak thriller that eschews Hollywood clichés and embraces cold, clinical science. Its adherence to the hard realities of a super-flu epidemic may dull the film’s emotional notes, but the picture successfully plucks terror and paranoia from the mundane. You may not look at another human being again without seeing them for what they really are: filthy, germ-ridden carriers; no better than that monkey from Outbreak. Soderbergh never really seemed like a romantic anyway.

The fun begins when Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home from a trip to Hong Kong. Her supposed jet-lag induced sniffles quickly evolve into something far nastier, and eventually fatal (Gwynnie’s not really in the film much at all; we’d argue she probably doesn’t deserve a spot on the poster, if it weren’t for her priceless expression). Similar cases are soon reported around the world, sending the doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Laurence FishburneKate WinsletJennifer EhleDemetri Martin) into a research frenzy. The days tick on, and the virus continues to spread (not just person to person, but across inanimate objects like bus poles, used drinking glasses, shared die); a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) heads to Hong Kong to uncover the identity of patient zero, while a conspiracy theorist blogger (Jude Law) documents the apparent ‘end of days’. Meanwhile, Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) isolate themselves in their home, while the world around them falls apart.

Soderbergh is a maestro when it comes to orchestrating and connecting disparate, international story lines; this we’ve long known, and he confirms it once again here. Editor Stephen Mirrione and composer Cliff Martinez (who does much of the heavy lifting, particularly during the picture’s multitudinous montage sequences) aid him expertly, and keep the film moving at a propulsive pace. The only thing standing in the way of Contagion’s velocity is screenwriter Scott Z. Burns; although his script is economic where it counts most, a couple of the plot lines turn out to be superfluous. Marion Cotillard’s thread in particular stalls faster than a 1983 Yugo, while the rest of the picture seems to move faster than a Maserati (I’m not a car guy – does this metaphor work?).

The cast is uniformly great, particularly Ehle as the committed doctor who risks her own life looking for an antidote, and Damon, as the grieving father trying to keep his daughter safe. There are plenty more wonderful performers who I’ve not even mentioned yet; such is clown-car emergence of talented character actors (Bryan Cranston and John Hawkes among them), the film at times feels like a really depressing version of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Though the ‘case study’ approach may not be satisfying for all, Contagion offers a fresh – and deeply unsettling – look at the way in which our fragile ecosystem teeters on extinction, without resorting to overblown theatrics or skyscraper-demolishing pyrotechnics. Soderbergh, who also acted as cinematographer, shot the film on the 4K RED One Camera, making the picture look so crisp it may as well be three-dimensional. That being said, close-ups of coughing and germ-swapping are hardly the kind of thing we need to see in high definition.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Contagion is now available on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia.

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