Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: "Contagion"

I am not sure seeing a film about an apocalyptic pandemic was the right choice after seeing 50/50! Contagion might be the scariest film I have seen in a long time. The idea of an unknown virus attacking millions of people across the globe and killing what would roughly amount to the total population of Canada really made me feel queasy. Steven Soderbergh burst onto the scene with his directorial debut sex, lies and videotape in 1989 and deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Director in 2000 for Traffic, arguably his best film. Since then he has found commercial success with Ocean's Eleven and its sequels, but I have mostly been disappointed by his recent filmography. Soderbergh has amassed quite the cast for Contagion, including three Academy Award-winning actresses and three nominated actors. I was drawn to the film because of Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, though the film and the genre offer very little for these talented actresses. This type of thriller depends heavily on the credibility of its screenplay and the skill of the director and editor to pace the film properly. I was surprised to find that the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, had also written The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh's disappointing 2008 film which also starred Matt Damon. The beginning of the film works perfectly and I was hooked. The idea of a virus stretching from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Chicago to Minneapolis to San Francisco to London just blows my mind. The SARS scare in Toronto was pretty intense, but it was nothing compared to what I witnessed in this film. Contagion is an intelligent and smartly plotted disaster film with a talented cast, despite being too long and getting slightly too far-reaching in its third act. It is better than Outbreak and it is always fun to see Gwyneth Paltrow die right at the beginning!

Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) is one her way home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong after a layover in Chicago. She appears to be under the weather and two days after returning home she collapses in the midst of a fit of seizures and later dies in the hospital. Her husband Mitch (Damon) is shocked by her death and returns home to find his stepson Clark, who had left school with a fever, has died with similar symptoms. Mitch is put into isolation but the doctors believe he is immune from the virus. In Atlanta, at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) fears that the virus is a bioweapon and sends Dr. Meers (Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Offier, to Minneapolis to try to trace the virus' origins. At the same time Dr. Orantes (Cotillard), who works for the World Health Organization, has traveled to Hong Kong to investigate Beth's trip and how she may have contracted the virus. At the CDC, Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), a scientist who has been struggling to grow the virus and create a vaccine, violates orders to have Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould), an outsider, destroy his samples and eventually creates a successful vaccine. And through all this an online blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), believes that there is a political conspiracy at the centre of it all. It takes so long to produce the vaccine that millions of people across the globe have died. Mitch and his daughter live in fear and isolation amid riots, Dr. Cheever's professional ethics are called into question, Dr. Meers discovers she has contracted symptoms, and Dr. Orantes is kidnapped and held for ransom.

There have been many films similar to Contagion made in the past. The most similar, in my opinion, would be Wolfgang Petersen's 1995 film Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman, which deals primarily with a viral outbreak in Africa and U.S. military investigation. Other films, like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, are definitely more apocalyptic. What sets Contagion apart is its focus on the medical teams across the globe that work to prevent a pandemic from killing the entire population. It is almost scarier to see how little these medical professionals can do after such an outbreak occurs. Contagion is promoted as a medical thriller, but it can also be viewed as a horror film. It is absolutely frightening to watch as more and more people die because we, as an entire population, are unable to fight against the virus. The film runs at 106 minutes, but it feels about fifteen minutes too long. With at least four parallel stories the film has trouble wrapping up. It just feels rushed and it is not paced with the skillful ease of the first two acts. Contagion did its job. I felt and still feel terrified about potential viral outbreaks. I think I am more scared of a pandemic than I am of cancer.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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