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Contagion across the globe: Steven Soderbergh’s viral thriller is clinical and chilling

By in Culture

rating: ★★★1/2

I'd rather get infected than walk around looking this douchey.

It all starts with one touch, one sneeze, one cough — and one fatality can become 30 million.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven), Contagion is a thriller charting the growth of a deadly virus called MEV-1 that spreads through indirect contact and kills within days.

It’s a terrifying film, but not because of visceral thrills. The disturbing quality of this film is mostly psychological as it makes the way you look at every surface you touch a potential spreader of death. Contagion is an ensemble film. Each character interacts with the virus and is pertinent to the plot, but this is not their story. Contagion is ultimately the story of a virus and those who get in its way.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first person to come into contact with MEV-1, bringing it back with her from a business trip in Hong Kong. After Beth and her son die from the disease, her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is quarantined and becomes the film’s exploration of the everyman in the inevitable societal meltdown. The disease quickly spreads to all those whom Beth came into contact with, turning from a rare outbreak to a global catastrophe.

Amidst the ensemble, Laurence Fishburne plays a director of the Center for Disease Control working to find a cure for the disease and Kate Winslet is his CDC field agent setting up a quarantine base in Beth’s hometown of Minneapolis, Minn. Marion Cotillard is an agent for the World Heath Organization dispatched to China to track down the source of the disease and Jude Law plays an iconoclastic anti-pharmaceutical blogger spreading panic through his popular website.

In addition to the above mentioned, Contagion boasts a series of great actors in cameos, including John Hawkes as a janitor for the CDC, Elliot Gould as a viral researcher and Bryan Cranston as an admiral. With this much talent on display, it’s easy to think this is an actor’s film but it really is not. It is a film about atmosphere and information.

Contagion is a clinical film and not just in its depiction of the disease. Avoiding the preposterous sensationalism and melodrama of a film like Outbreak, the film tries to give an extremely accurate portrait of how a pandemic would spread in the modern world and the results are very convincing. The film gives you plenty of good information on how a disease spreads, how vaccines are made and the stages of collapse that a society would undergo during such a crises. It convinces you that 70 million people could die from a random disease spread arbitrarily at any moment.

The only problem with this clinical depiction is that the result is emotionally cold. The viewer’s reaction to the film is paranoia, not empathy. The cast bring their A-game, but there isn’t enough time with any of the characters to really connect to them. Thus, the mostly excellent performances are only pieces of a whole and not standouts in their own right.

Jude Law’s blogger is the only character that does not seem to fit in the film. He seems to be channeling the qualities of a real person but there’s no specific individual in real life who matches his views or has his kind of sway over society. As well, the character’s motivation and concerns just make little sense all around. Law is good but his character is the film’s one break from realism.

However, from a strictly filmmaking point of view, Contagion is terrifically made. Soderbergh is as technically proficient a director as they come and he deftly creates an overwhelming atmosphere of paranoia and inescapable infection. The cinematography is crisp and capable, and the multifaceted story jumps from one character to another in an easy-to-follow manner.

Contagion is a terrifying depiction of how one tiny, arbitrary event could catastrophically devastate the planet. It may be a little passionless for a depiction of a world catastrophe but its fidelity to fact and its atmosphere make for a potent film that also acts as a sermon for washing your hands.

[box type=”info”]Contagion is currently playing at Galaxy Cinemas.[/box]

Photo: Supplied

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