Movie Review: Going Viral

We now return to our current apocalypse, already in progress.

Film: Contagion
Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Genre: Thriller, drama, science fiction
Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-


Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong feeling a bit under the weather. Within two days, she gets dramatically worse and finally dies from her illness. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is puzzled, claiming she had only complained of jet lag. At the same time in several other cities, others die of the same mysterious virus, which goes from infection to death within 72 hours. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are baffled by the disease and have no immediate way to stop it. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Meers (Kate Winslet) of the CDC head to Minneapolis to try containing the disease, while Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of WHO heads to Hong Kong to discover the source. Meanwhile, society begins to quickly unravel as chaos and panic spread even faster than the virus, often exacerbated by the conspiracy theories of self-righteous blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law).

Typhoid Gwyneth.

A tense, low-key thriller, Contagion is a disaster film that seems wholly plausible and, consequently, terrifying. It’s a knock at the Gates of What If that actually gets answered. Unlike 1970s disaster epics like The Towering Inferno, it’s never melodramatic or exaggerated. Unlike modern disaster epics like Armageddon, its premise is entirely based in the real world and the current limits of our scientific knowledge. Tightly written by Scott Z. Burns, who set the film in his native Minnesota, and skillfully directed by Steven Soderbergh, we watch as a cast of A-list actors make the apocalypse seem very possibly nigh.

The film’s biggest asset is its realism. The cast is full of award-winning and award-nominated actors even in small roles, including Jennifer Ehle as a CDC scientist and Bryan Cranston as a government official who thinks the disease could be a bioweapon. However, there is no movie star gloss to be seen. The cast looks remarkably average and very realistically de-glammed with the exception of Marion Cotillard, who simply can’t help looking the way she does. The lack of the slick sheen usually given to these kinds of “named cast” films is completely absent, giving the film a sense of immediacy and its cast a sense of lived-in familiarity.

The Damon next door.

The cast is uniformly solid, with no egregious miscasting or weak links. In a film that continually cross-cuts between multiple plot lines, most of which barely or almost never intersect, that’s a vital asset. Matt Damon gets the most screen time as a man curiously immune to the disease who has to keep his daughter safe from a world going mad. Laurence Fisbhurne and Kate Winslet have a very natural rapport, and both of them play their roles quietly and with absolutely no melodrama. The same could be said of Marion Cotillard, who portrays Dr. Orantes as a woman who purposefully detaches herself from the situation in order to keep her head together. Jude Law makes Alan Krumweide seem both dangerously fringe and persuasively rebellious, giving exactly the right amount of drama to a character who seems to approach everything in life as a performance. It’s a role that very easily could have been overplayed, but Law keeps from making Alan seem like a caricature of the blogosphere.

The film derives most of its darkness and dread from the effects of the disease outside the human body. Unlike other disease-disasters like Outbreak, the focus is not actually on the virus itself but on its effects on society. It takes only a few weeks for society to collapse into anarchy after it becomes clear that the virus is unstoppable and highly infectious. Riots break out in pharmacies and food lines, public services are almost completely abandoned, and almost everyone becomes paranoid and suspicious of everyone else. Friends turn against each other, and human life becomes reduced to a collection of statistics. In a society that itself has gone viral with ubiquitous internet memes and 24/7 news channels, it takes very, very little time and energy to turn a bit of panic into a worldwide epidemic of fear.

In a global community, nowhere is safe.

In a disaster of this magnitude, it only stands to reason that people will eventually let down their guard and reveal the kind of person they really are. For some, that means trying to make a profit off of the disease even while people are dying in the millions. For some, that means devoting every waking moment to finding a cure and containing the spread. There are no real heroes or villains here, simply humans. Even those with noble intentions suffer damning lapses of judgment, and even those exploiting the tragedy aren’t completely without some form of compassion. Every character is a full portrait of a person, multidimensional and complex. Social strata are exaggerated to the breaking point, and the basic structure of modern life seems to crumble before our eyes.

The true power of the film comes in its inherent believability and its refusal to make easy answers for the cast and the audience. The timeline starts on day 2 of Beth Emhoff’s infection.  Day 1 isn’t shown until the final scenes in the film, so all there is to go on to determine the source of the virus is the speculation of the scientists studying it. The uncertainty of the “enemy” makes fighting it all the more difficult, and makes the chaos it causes seem all the more inevitable. While Beth is the first to be seen on camera with the disease, she’s only one of several possible Patient Zeros around the world, which in and of itself is a rather unsettling concept. Soderbergh emphasizes this with constant close-ups of hands touching things, reminding us of how easily a virus like this could be spread.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Contagion is a zombie film where the zombies are replaced by infected humans. The walking dead are still the walking dead, and the film traffics in the same fear of the inevitable and unavoidable end of society as we know it. In this film, however, the antagonists are ourselves and the instinctive human capacity for panic and fear. It’s a science fiction film firmly rooted in fact and a horror film based entirely on real-world possibilities. Remarkably restrained and excellently staged, it’s simply one of the most effectively unsettling films in a long, long time.

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and is going to go take a bath in Purell now.<a href="; title="imageimage

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