Contagion

After returning home from Steven Soderbergh’s latest movie, the infectious disease thriller Contagion, I immediately washed my hands and tried to avoid touching my face as much as possible. Such is the power of this cunning and intelligent film.

A woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home from a business trip to Hong Kong with flu-like symptoms. But it’s not the flu; it’s something much worse – the deadliest disease since the Spanish flu wiped out 1% of the world’s population in 1918. This disease could be the one that eradicates everyone on the planet, and world health organizations are scrambling to contain it.

It’s a typical epidemic plot (think of the Dustin Hoffman movie Outbreak as an example) but what Soderbergh does with the material is interpret it, and show it, in an entirely novel and entertaining way. For one, this isn’t a military containment style thriller where snowy American suburbs are invaded by gruff marines that bark orders at civilians to stay inside. Sure, the film features scenes like this, but that’s not the focus of the film. The focus is on the international reach of a disease that doesn’t pay attention to borders, doesn’t care if its victims have families, and will spread relentlessly until a cure is found.

The disease provides the perfect foil to a number of subplots. Some characters look to profit from the disease by promoting an untested cure – hoping to make millions from the stock’s meteoric rise. Others slave away in medical facilities and universities, trying to determine the origin of the virus and its components. The towns that have been quarantined have descended into anarchic madness reminiscent of scenes from zombie apocalypse movies. And meanwhile, everyone else is just trying to survive in a world that’s teetering over the edge.

Soderbergh makes an involving and intricate narrative that spans several continents and characters and is stylistically similar to his War on Drugs drama Traffic. The sequences that struck me were the wordless montages dealing with a World Health Organization representative (Marion Cotillard) investigating the virus in Hong Kong and watching surveillance footage from a casino where it’s believed to have originated from. Without dialogue, these scenes convey the urgency, and the same information, without slowing down the pace with mind-boggling scientific mumbo-jumbo. It also helps that these scenes are set to a throbbing industrial score by Cliff Martinez that will stick with you long after the film is over.

The film does have its problems with unresolved subplots (see: Marion Cotillard) and  disappearing characters (Elliot Gould appears in a pivotal role than is never mentioned afterwards). However, these are mostly minor quibbles, especially when the film is so strong, and is graced with an originality and unpredictability (don’t think just because there are big-name stars in the cast that they won’t be killed in five scenes) not often seen in Hollywood fare.

Go see it. And don’t forget to Purell.

Grade: A-

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