MOVIE: Contagion (2011)

I love virus movies.  Always have.  I’m a bit of an armchair science nerd, see, and have long found viruses incredibly fascinating — the way they can so rapidly adapt or mutate to thrive in new sets of circumstances or hosts has always made them seem almost intelligent to me, even though we know they are not sentient beings (OR ARE THEY, MUA HA HA HA!).  Of course, the very thing that makes them so interesting is also what makes them so deadly; viruses are hard to kill and often impossible to predict.  As fast as we can come up with a way to fight them, they can shift behavior, making our cures useless against them.  And this, my friends, is what makes virus movies so goddamn thrilling.  It’s always about working against the clock — beat it before it beats you.

That said, virus movies are also pretty much the same when it comes to overall story trajectory — someone gets sick, they get others sick, the infection spread exponentially (usually illustrated by a PowerPoint slide featuring a map of the world and gasps from the crowd), someone finds a cure, the world is saved.  Occasionally, there are zombies (though, alas, not here).  But essentially: same same same.  What makes each film unique are the characters, their relationships, and the situations in which they find themselves.

While Contagion has all the usual suspects there too (for example, it seems we must always have one primary medical character come down with the virus him/herself, as well as at least one evil politician who makes the whole mess worse — I always refer to that character as “the mayor of Amity,” for reasons Jaws fans will understand), what I liked about this one is the way it is less the usual nasty-bug thriller and more a character study of sorts.  Instead of primarily focusing on the race for the cure, this film tells the closer-up stories of a wide variety of players.

For example, there’s the husband (Matt Damon) of Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow, who really ought to cover her mouth when she coughs), who loses her and his stepson all in one day.  Then there’s the WHO worker (the insanely gorgeous Marion Cotillard) who is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the source of the infection only to find herself kidnapped by a group who wants to ransom her for first dibs on the vaccine.

The dangers of believing everything you read/hear online is a major theme as well: a conspiracy-theorist blogger (Jude Law) convinces thousands of followers he was cured by an herbal remedy called Forsythia and that the government’s vaccine is a hoax, resulting in a violent rush on drug stores for the herb, as well as a whole host of ignoramuses (ignorami?) refusing the vaccine once it’s made available (I wish this had gotten slightly more focus, in fact, because it’s so relevant to current events).  Plus, there’s a CDC doctor who violates protocol by calling his girlfriend and telling her to get out of Chicago before the city’s locked down in quarantine.  She immediately tells her BFF, and the next thing the CDC knows, the news is all over Facebook and Chicago is in a panic.

FACEBOOK!  *shakes fist*

In other words, as times change, so too do the ways in which we get ourselves into more and more trouble.  Oddly, though, I would’ve expected this focus on the more personal, every-man sorts of stories to make the film feel even more emotionally compelling.  It definitely makes the plot move much more slowly than, say, Outbreak, something I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about (though, dudes, this is a Soderbergh film, not a Spielberg one — what were you expecting?), but even slowed down and more intimately focused, it still didn’t make the story any more wrenching than usual to watch unfold.  That is, it’s never easy to look at bodies being thrown into mass graves, but with each sub-plot giving us a close-up view of one person’s struggle in time of strife, you’d think this would be a highly emotional film.  And yet, it isn’t.  This is a good movie, I would say — I enjoyed it while I was watching it.  But I never really connected with any of the characters, and after I left the theater and the buzz from the science high wore off, I realized I found this movie more interesting than engaging.  I liked the characters, but I didn’t really FEEL them.  Hard to say just why, though my theory is that it’s at least partly because there were simply too many of these storylines, making it impossible to connect deeply with any of them.  I think the film would’ve been more powerful had it tried to cover fewer bases, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you which character I would’ve cut out and which stories I would’ve beefed up.

All in all, I’d say this is a flick well worth the price of admission, but you should go into it ready to think, more than to grip the edge of your seat.  The virus certainly takes off with lightning speed, but the movie?  Eh, not so much.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Science Fiction, Deadly Virus
Cast:  Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle

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3 Responses to “MOVIE: Contagion (2011)”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    This looks to me like a good one. The odd thing is that most of the casual filmgoers I know who’ve seen it thought it was terrible – but all the pro reviewers have loved it.

  2. Meg Says:

    That will make more sense once you’ve seen it. Casual film-goers were expecting Outbreak — a virus thriller. Starring action heroes Matt Damon and Jude Law (well, okay, maybe not “action hero” for Jude Law). It’s not that. AT ALL. PLUS, Jude Law has gross teeth! The horror!

    Also, like I said, there’s not much emotional connection to be had with this one. And I think that’s what most people are seeking through film.

  3. Alisa Cabral Says:

    I watched it on Tuesday, I have to say I liked it. I came out hating Jude Law LOL and realizing this is exactly what would have happened had the CDC and WHO had given us all the info on the Bird Flu. There would have been rioting and quacks coming out of the woodwork w/their “cures”, and the government holding a lottery.

    I did like the ending, it was very simple. Not sure how China is going to feel about this movie though.

    During the movie my hubby asked me if I wanted any popcorn and I’m like no thanks, I’ll pass. 🙂

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