Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: Contagion

Non Spoiler Review:
It's been years and years since a good (non-zombie) plague film hit theatres. I'm talking about Outbreak, which certainly had its flaws, but was a good shot at the apocalyptic global pandemic genre. Watching previews for the more cerebral and political Contagion really had me excited, so I was anxious to see this. I'm happy to report I wasn't at all disappointed, and it certainly exceeds Outbreak's melodramatic nature in favor of a more coldly logical thriller that makes the story even more chilling.

Contagion feels like Crash, or Traffic, which isn't too surprising given it's directed by Steven Soderbergh. The story begins immediately at Day 2, tracking several characters who have been infected with a flu-like virus as they travel through several parts of the world. Very quickly the infection spreads and proves to be fatal within a couple of days of exposure. The family first affected is Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow's, and once the spread of the disease reaches both the news and government attention, the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Bryan Cranston are brought in on the rapidly worsening crisis. Reporting from the sidelines to discern the truth is controversial blogger Jude Law. These are but a few of a very large and capable cast that carries the film through.

Contagion is horrifying for its simplicity. The virus is not some blood-spewing Ebola mess. It's just influenza crossed between mammals, in the spirit of the Bird and Swine Flu. That grounds the film significantly in our recent experiences, and makes it all the more relevant.

There is also no clear hero and villain, as all the characters make very genuine gray choices when it comes to weighing decisions that affect the population as a whole versus their own families. At no point can the government, the military, pharmaceutical companies, or sensationalist bloggers be deemed any more opportunistic or altruistic than the other. That's for the audience to discuss afterwards.

The movie is surprisingly short, under two hours, and I could have easily sat through another half hour. The rationed screen time, however, is a source of criticism when it comes to character development (or attachment) to the players. Given the rapid pace of the movie, plus the copious number of people, there's little time to really feel for the deaths of several of the characters that come and go throughout. But Contagion remains about the global and geo-political response, which overshadows the individual stories.

There are also a few storylines that seem to just disappear, unfortunately, or leave one scratching their head wondering what's happened. But the final scene is immensely satisfying, and brings the film to a fitting conclusion.

Contagion is probably one of the best thrillers of the year. It's not science fiction at all, and provides a good lesson on the science and procedure behind pandemics, quarantines, and the government's response to such a crisis. Everyone should watch it, if just to get a sense of how fragile the architecture of our society is, and how so little needs to go wrong to make it crumble. 

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