Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Movie review: Contagion

Posted on: September 13, 2011

There’s a virus.  It starts somewhere else, and is carried by innocent people to everywhere else.  As it spreads from Hong Kong to Minneapolis, authorities are mystified by its properties.  Meanwhile, an exponentially growing number of people are dying, including pretty people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet.  This is the stuff of Contagion: a movie that wants to produce anxiety, fear and pathos.

It fails.

If Contagion has a redeeming value, it’s that it shows – quite well – how a virus can be transmitted.  This matters because it can cause the viewer to evaluate matters of personal hygiene and unconscious habits like touching your face up to 600 times each day.  It also helps you believe that such a pandemic can happen — because it can.

But Contagion‘s disappointments are many.  Jude Law’s character is the antagonist: an appealing – though stereotypical – freelance anti-authority blogger with a huge constituency.  He points to a cure, accuses the good guys of coverup, and then turns out to be – himself – less than honest.  There’s Matt Damon who loses his wife (Paltrow) and step-son to the virus.  It’s hard to sympathize with a guy who shows so little emotion.

The cast is unusually female-heavy for a purported thriller.  There are a number of Ph.D.-types who fail to generate a fear response amidst the data.  Sure, it’s nice to see women-of-science on the big screen, but we can see them for free on small-screen shows like NCIS or Criminal Minds.  The difference is that the TV characters transmit passion for their pursuits.  These movie characters transmit scripted words.

One performance almost hits the mark.  Laurence Fishburne is an effective agency leader and cool head amidst the storm.  Only Fishburne’s and Damon’s characters have relationships in this movie, but in neither case are they given time to develop.

Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh wastes good talent and spectacular international scenery and never succeeds in causing a skipped heartbeat or even a wince from his audience.

If there is a winner in all of this, it is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which served as a consultant to the movie.  It seemed as if the CDC had been given unprecedented power in script development and execution; so much so that Contagion works best if seen as a documentary with Hollywood actors.  Overdub a small handful of profanities and you’ve got a video worthy of distribution to ninth-grade biology classes.  It’s not even long enough to induce a good desktop nap.  Sociology and psychology students might also benefit from the depiction of group behavior amidst anarchy.

I give Contagion two cranial autopsies (out of four).  It’s a good argument for discount theaters.  Yes, the screens have patches and the seats are squeaky.  But the popcorn is as good (or bad) as the high-priced cineplexes, and a Coke is a Coke.

2 Responses to "Movie review: Contagion"

Nice review. Soderbergh’s Contagion offers little new about fear and horror but his behind-the-camera ability to be fresh — along with help from an all-star cast — elevates his thriller from boredom, if only just slightly. Check out my review when you get a chance!

Hmmm, not sure if I’ll bother to see it. Maybe my time will be better used if I just review hygiene with Ranger Bob.

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