Saturday, September 10, 2011


What better way is there to wrap up the summer movie season than a film about a contagious disease that decimates our home planet's population? Am I right?

Maybe not, but Contagion fills that role and does it with near expert precision. Aside from a couple of flaws, this film has a lot working in its favor: an all-star ensemble cast, dynamic filming locales, a fantastic script, with a relevant and plausible story.

Let's start with that cast.

There are four divergent yet overlapping stories fleshing out Contagion's plot. First is Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson die from a mysterious illness. He's been exposed to the pathogen, and must cope with his loss while trying to protect his daughter and prevent her from becoming sick. Next are two CDC doctors (Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet) researching the effects and spread of the virus. Jude Law plays a smarmy blogger/journalist/conspiracy theorist capitalizing on the medical crisis, advertising a cure that doesn't work. And the final story arc involves a World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) sent to Hong Kong to investigate the source of the virus.

Before we continue, let's make one thing clear. This is not a raging virus movie like Outbreak (1995). That movie was nothing more than a monster movie where the heroes spend all their time figuring out how to win. Where Outbreak was steeped in action, Contagion has more of an intellectual bent grounded more in reality. Rather than following an A + B = C formula (where A is the virus, B is the doctors, and C is a cure), Contagion follows the tragedy and human reaction to a massive epidemic. The media and medical personnel attempt to downplay the scope to prevent a swine flu kind of public panic. The interactions between those in-the-know and the lives of those around them. The tender moments between a protective father and his daughter. The Chinese government trying to hide their possible involvement in causing the outbreak. Political hostages. Government assumptions. Military reaction. Widespread fear. Riots. Looting. Truth vs disinformation.

This isn't an easy movie to watch as the subject matter is heavy and the imagery is gritty and occasionally unsettling. The film makers appear to be aware of this potential buzz kill and break up the dismal prospects of their characters with a few moments of levity (snow angels) and quick one-liners. Some of those one-liners work ("Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation.") and some don't ("Someone doesn't have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing that.")

By no means is this a perfect movie. It is slow paced making it feel longer than its actual running time. And while the film makers made every attempt to keep the story as scientifically accurate as possible, they cast Demetri Martin as one of the scientists engineering the cure. I kept waiting for him to crack a dead-panned non sequitur joke - which was a bit of a distraction from the actual story.

My biggest complaint is that Contagion comes across as a long "you should always wash your hands" PSA. But that one squabble aside, Contagion is an great movie. Bekah enjoyed Contagion and recommends it - which says a lot because she doesn't often recommend movies. My father-in-law said it was a bit "sterile" but overall an excellent film. He also lauded the ending as being a fantastic piece of story-telling (though I will not spoil the ending here).

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