Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reel Low: Contagion [2011]

Just in time for flu season, Steven Soderbergh brings us a film that will make you seriously consider extreme couponing for hand sanitizer. Contagion [2011] explores one of the bleakest scenarios imaginable -- a disease so powerful, it decimates the population as it escalates into a worldwide pandemic. However, the film does so with such intelligence and command of the subject and drama, that you won't even mind being overcome with germophobia.

We live in a world where the transmission of a new disease has the potential to plague the entirety of humanity in little over a day. So rapidly can it travel the globe and infect millions -- roughly a quarter of the population -- the spread of it even outpaces progress in the search for a cure.

But this blight isn't the only danger sweeping through the world of the film. If one out of every four people are contracting the disease, at least twice that number were fully infected by panic, allowing the moral fabric of society rip apart with rampant looting, rioting and even more extreme measures (like kidnapping and murder) to assuage that fear. These events were often fueled by rumors -- some of which had merit and others entirely unsubstantiated -- but all of which are just as impossible to control in the times we live in as the it would be to cease the spread of a disease of this magnitude. The ripples of terror passing around globe were just as epidemic as the virus itself.

Infused with a barrage of stars and supremely talented character actors in minor roles, Contagion is a vehicle for everyone involved shine. The movie is comprised of multiple storylines, but ultimately they all spin out of one of three main threads. The first is driven by a CDC official played by Laurence Fishburne who is leading the charge at containing, understanding and curing the disease. There's also Matt Damon's portrayal of a husband and father who's painful personal account leads us through the decay of social order in suburbia. And finally the journalist/blogger, conspiracy theorist, and ultimately shrewd opportunist played by Jude Law, who through his incessant rejection of mainstream news leads him to and beyond the horror of the disease from the very beginning.

Unsurprisingly, Soderbergh handles this web of crisscrossing characters and plot masterfully. He ramps up tension early, making you cringe at even the thought of someone coughing on the other side of the theater. And although the film is never quite as suspenseful as those early moments again, it refuses to let your attention wane. At seemingly every perfect moment, he switches to another subplot as you become invested even deeper into the revolving door of the afflicted. Complimenting this progression is the magnetic industrial score from Cliff Martinez, as it made taut scenes even more uneasy and sometimes downright disturbing precisely when it needed to.

However, more than anything else, I adore how Contagion treated the audience as adults. There are a multitude of scenes where highly technical, sciency virus jargon is being dicussed, and thankfully Soderbergh doesn't inject some government stooge in a suit asking, "Explain that in English" at the end of them. Thankfully, he realizes that if you believe the characters understand what they're talking about and they're scarred shitless, we will be too. More filmmakers should take note of that technique.

Forget the Roland Emmerich and Michel Bay CGI extravaganzas of the last 20 years -- this is the sort of disaster movie I prefer, but that's probably because it's more of a procedural than traditional apocalyptic flick. The events depicted are completely plausible, a testament to the stellar script and strong cast. Contagion will creep you out; I know I used my sleeve-covered palms to open the door on my exit from the theater. This is real-world horror on screen.

Pardon me while I seek out a flu shot.

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