Saturday, September 24, 2011


You don’t need to bring any Kleenex to Contagion, but you might want to pack some Purell.

For a story about a brain-liquefying virus that decimates the human race worldwide, Contagion is surprisingly unemotional. As he did in other recent films like The Informant! The Girlfriend Experience, and Che, director Steven Soderbergh films like an alien sent here to create a documentary on the human condition. Even the film’s sickly-beautiful look holds us at arm’s length, its precisely framed, yellow-tinged compositions making most of the environments feel sterile and unwelcoming.

In some ways, the film’s coolness comes as a relief. It’s a pleasure to simply sidestep those persistent disaster movie clichés Airplane! skewered three decades ago: There are no saintly clerics or estranged couples brought together by crisis here, and though there is a pair of young lovers, their separation is played more for dark laughs than for tears. Just a click or two more of empathy might have drawn me in closer to the people in Scott Z. Burns’ script, who are glimpsed in such brief snippets and from such an emotional distance that I never really cared what happened to them.

But it’s impossible not to root for Team Human in movies like this, especially one with such a first-class cast. Soderbergh plays on that instinct with intelligence and bone-dry humor, turning a battle for survival into a morality tale. The pandemic is started by a cheating wife (an alarmingly pallid Gwyneth Paltrow) and cured by a phalanx of noble scientists, including a nurturing and perpetually concerned Kate Winslet; a sly Elliott Gould, his face sagging like a half-melted candle but his wit still sharp; a mostly wasted Marion Cotillard; and a fierce Jennifer Ehle, who steals the stage out from under all the rest as an obsessive-nerd hero.

Paltrow’s Beth may have started the fire, but the real villain is a blogger played by a hammy Jude Law, who’s perpetually photographed by a camera that floats somewhere just under his chin, the better to emphasize a set of jagged prosthetic teeth meant to make him look seedy and unattractive. (Yeah, right.) Profiting off the crisis by peddling misinformation and seeding mistrust of the vaccine our scientist heroes are sweating to produce, Law’s Alan Krumwiede is a proxy for the internet, which is seen here as a 21st-century twist on Newton Minow’s vast wasteland. “Blogging isn’t writing,” Gould tells him, in one of the film’s best lines. “It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

Contagion sometimes seems to be another of the tales our anxious age keeps telling itself about the end of civilization as we know it. It starts in the epitome of pampered civilization, at a bar in a glossy hotel, where the lithe and lovely Beth is rapidly degenerating into a splotchy-skinned, sniveling mess—not to mention, as the probing camera keeps reminding us, a teeming colony of contagion who spreads death every time she picks up a drinking glass or reaches into a bowl of nuts.

From there, we head out into less privileged public places, watching people collapse in planes, on buses, and in hospitals, before retreating into the houses where the panicked survivors hole up, forced to rely on that infernal internet for the human contact they can’t risk getting in person.

Soderbergh and crew do a good job of conveying the claustrophobic comfort of the warrens people create, from the cavernous house where Beth’s widower, Mitch (Matt Damon) retreats with his increasingly resentful teenage daughter to the cramped apartment where Krumwiede hunches in front of his webcam, a great spider weaving its web. But the film’s quick-cutting, episodic approach is less successful at conveying the big picture.

The snapshots we see of panicked crowds making runs on drugstores and grocery stores, two men breaking into the house across the street from Mitch and apparently shooting its owners, and people siphoning gas from cars in a parking lot indicate a total breakdown of civilized society, yet Mitch and his daughter manage to keep going for months in that house. Sure, they’re lonely and antsy, but they seem perfectly comfortable and well fed. Where are they getting food and water, not to mention the money to buy them? Who’s making sure that the electricity and phones are still working?

A more textured sense of that social context, a little more focus on the main characters’ emotions, or both might have turned Contagion into a hauntingly resonant classic. But even without them, it’s an engaging evening’s entertainment—and a creepily effective reminder of why mom was right when she told us to wash our hands.

Written for TimeOFF

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