Friday, September 9, 2011


There's little time to waste in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh's latest, a brisk, nervy, globe-trotting thriller about a virus that takes hold of the population, so much so, that within the first few frames of the feature, movie star Gwyneth Paltrow is killed off, and nearly gutted.  She's the victim of a highly contagious and rapidly lethal unknown virus caught while on a business trip to Hong Kong.  For the record, she seizures beautifully, and does return in crucial flashbacks.  It takes a bit to get a grasp on the film, rooted in technical jargon, procedural takes and blatant matter-of-fact realism.  Yet there's still a little tinge of paranoid, antsy exasperation that the film opens with a grisly death of a Hollywood beauty, and the Janet Leigh of Psycho effect is part of the thrill, and oddly pleasurable allure of Soderbergh's multi-layered popcorn yarn.  And while Contagion, scripted by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant) has little interest in matters of the heart, Paltrow's character for instance is given but a blip of backstory, it fairly intelligently and absorbingly dives into a very scary and real reality of fear.  And the idea of a film, especially one starring a huge, very starry, cast of movie stars in which all must keep away from each other, there's a sort of cerebral and smart devise that the film intentionally keeps its audience at arms length the entire time.  But this is also one of Soderbergh's most commercial films in quite some time too, and the big, sprawling and glamorous ensemble he assembled is part of the manic joy, as is the mystery of whose going to go next.  The film plays a wicked mash-up of The China Syndrome and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or in simpler terms a B-movie ride with enough hints of broader social commentary, should one be up for it.

The film just jumps in, there's not enough time to spare for a single opening title sequence, as Soderbergh jets his camera all over the world, tracing the first cases of the mysterious virus.  We jump from major city to major city, and start watching people croak.  He jets from the Center of Disease Control to the World Health Organization to the homes of families, as this thing grows with little idea of what it is, and how it can be stopped.  One of the alarming features of the briskness, is just how eerily real it feels.  As Soderbergh jumps from governmental meetings, and major scares like the bird flu are name dropped, they feel like achingly real conversations, and the film grows on our own fears of overblown hysteria, and the unknown.  There's even a nifty subplot involving a slimy blogger (played by Jude Law), who using his power of free speech spawns his own sort of fear mongering for financial means.  The main thing that keeps Contagion as alive and interesting as it is, is because there's the frightful sense that this could actually happen, and all powers that be of government, media and health departments could be undone by a scared and frantic world.  Like all good thriller, Contagion's fears are all reality based.

The neatest feat might just be the certain joy in watching someone like Soderbergh tackle a film on a large scale again.  After amusing and sometimes brilliant, sometimes less than forays in small scaled independent films, crowd pleasing director for hire jobs, the spectacle of Contagion is its strength, in all it's fast moving, agonizing intensity, here's a filmmaker of immense scope and bold chutzpah.  Like with Traffic, it's almost more on the surface that matters most, the film as a whole, and when dissected to the microscopic level, things start to glisten a little less.  For Kate Winslet is formidable and commanding as a no-nonsense CDC investigator, and Jennifer Ehle is disarming and graceful as epidemiologist striving to stay on step ahead of the virus she knows nothing about, just as Marion Cotillard is short-tailed as a World Heath Organization worker given a subplot that needed more than Soderbergh's fast-moving parade could provide, and Matt Damon's panic-stricken suburban dad take tries to provide a thorny heartbeat to a film that's best when it's in motion.  Other names include Laurence Fishburne as a CDC head and Elliot Gould as a doctor who solves a critical clue in the puzzle.  Yet there's no mistaking that this is Soderbergh's show, and the aplomb and visceral gravitas he injects Contagion.

And yet even with a larger than life group of movie stars at hand, and a few too nods at global hotspots (the film does cross into Babel territory a few times-- especially when Cotillard travels to Hong Kong to retrace host Paltrow's sickly steps), there's still a few quieter and even more unsettling tricks up Soderbergh's sleeve.  As perhaps some of the most haunting shots are of empty airport terminals and school houses of fleeing children, and the onset of very real feel like you're almost watching a documentary.  There's a lovely and chilling little sequence in the middle of the feature of Winslet struggling to keep everything together, and without giving anything away, a brief shot very human sorrow, but again Contagion cares very little of matters of the heart, it's the terse, direct, technically mechanics of driving panic that Soderbergh and Burns are clearly after.

The upwards, downwards, sideways track that Soderbergh employs-- fans of his work will catch on quicker than others-- does provide proper closer to the tale, and while many might see it all coming, and perhaps even snicker a bit, it's far from the point.  The hysteric and menacing anguish of what fear can bring is the motive of the movie, and the nervy stylization of it here is practically contagious.  B

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