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Posted: September 14, 2011

Dave on film: Bring on the pandemic!

"Contagion:" smart but less than thrilling

Dave Taylor

There are specific genres of films, certain themes, that I find highly appealing, and one of those is apocolyptic events. From the daft The Happening to the cheesy The Day After Tomorrow, if the world's ending, if we're all facing extinction as a species, if something really terrible is going to happen, I'm interested. I think this started with classic old sci-fi like The Day of the Triffids and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, but that's another story.

One of the most powerful - and frightening - of these film themes is global pandemics. Diseases already seem to spread without us fully understanding or being able to control them, and given that they rapidly evolve to become resistant to our defenses, it's not much of a leap to see a very bad future or to imagine that they might be bioweapons or even alien life forms. My favorite film in this genre is the original 1971 thriller The Andromeda Strain, a film that's still anxiety-provoking 40 years later.

That's why I was perfectly primed for Contagion, though was a bit disappointed how cerebral and unthrilling it was for a film marketed as a tense action thriller. Filmed in a documentary style (think District 9) and with an interesting, if occasionally complicated timeline that jumps back and forth, the film is a fascinating primer on how an illness can spread rapidly and how difficult it is to identify, contain and cure.

The film initially focuses on international traveler Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) who returns from a trip overseas to her home in Minneapolis and then, in front of her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) collapses and soon dies. Who did she interact with? What did she touch? How is the as-yet unidentified disease transmitted?

Contagion then moves to the Centers for Disease Control, as represented by Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and the World Health Organization and its field specialist Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard). Their job: figure out the transmission vector, slow down the spread of the disease and ultimately come up with both a cure and a vaccine. To do that, however, they need to be able to replicate the disease (shades of The Andromeda Strain), which proves very difficult to accomplish.

Meanwhile, people are dying and Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) is causing trouble and creating even more paranoia with his wild conspiracy theories about drug company schemes to make millions, even as he double-deals and insists a homeopathic treatment is the only cure for the H1N1-like disease.

The cast of Contagion includes a lot of very talented actors, some of whom get far too little screen time. Most notably, veteran medical thriller actor Elliott Gould plays San Francisco-based disease transmission expert Ian Sussman. An interesting role, and pivotal in the movie as he violates research containment protocols to figure out how to duplicate the disease, but he has maybe six minutes of screen time total. Way too little.

As a blogger I also found the character of Krumweide (Law) interesting. Scriptwriters as a general rule like to exaggerate the antisocial tendencies of nerdy characters (think of Dennis (actor Wayne Knight) in Jurassic Park as an example) and there were definitely scenes where Krumweide was a wild-eyed lunatic, but director Steven Soderbergh also tapped into our collective suspicion of very large corporations with some of the dialog about the conspiracy of big pharma and the self-preservation behaviors of the Army, even as people were dying throughout the United States and around the world.

Pandemics are generally spread through touch or are airborne and Soderbergh does a great job of constantly zooming in on people coughing and touching rails, door handles, glasses, sticking their hands in shared food containers, and otherwise interacting. At one point, we're told that the average human touches their face over a thousand times per day (which I'm a bit skeptical of, actually). We do share germs quite a bit, though, and things that harm your immune system (like HIV) really do pose a major health risk. Listening to people cough in the theater just added to the effect: I can definitely understand the logic of a germaphobe.

Still, the performances were professional and believable but there was curiously little passion and drama in this medical thriller. People might react with quiet disbelief in real life, but when I'm in a movie theater watching a film for entertainment I want it to be more dramatic, more exciting than regular life, and Contagion just isn't that film.

Even with the scenes of society starting to break down as people panic and loot stores, shove each other out of the way to get government-issued food rations and exploit the misfortune of others, there was a distance that made it considerably less frightening. Masked gunmen broke into a neighbor's house across the street rather than trying to break into the Emhoff house.

Do I recommend Contagion? Yes. It's a smart, thoughtful and disturbing thriller. It has some rough edges but compared to the usual banal theater fare, it's well worth your time and money. Just wash your hands afterwards.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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