Arts and Culture

'Contagion'

Bloodless. And more reasons to resist catching Soderbegh's disease flick.

By Steve Burgess 9 Sep 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about culture and travel for The Tyee.

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Jude Law on the set of 'Contagion.'

True fact: Wednesday's sneak preview screening of Stephen Soderbergh's Contagion was sponsored in part by the Downtown Infectious Diseases Clinic. Excellent marketing but they could be even more aggressive -- why not sponsor the next James Bond or Sex and the City flicks? They certainly put their stamp on the right product this time though -- Soderbergh's disease movie can best be described as clinical.

It was hard to know what to expect from Contagion. On the one hand it's another pandemic movie like The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak. But it's also from Stephen Soderbergh, a director not noted for pandering to standard blockbuster film-making conventions, at least not since the Ocean's 11/12/13 flicks. (In fact it's never certain what you're going to get from Soderbergh at the best of times -- to anyone who struggled through The Girlfriend Experience, my sympathies.) No surprise then that Contagion does not really follow the familiar path of apocalyptic germ tales. It's unnerving certainly, but Soderbergh's bloodless approach is about as thrilling as a flu vaccine.

Gesundheit!

Contagion starts quickly and effectively without preamble. The opening shot is of a somewhat green-at-the-gills Gwyneth Paltrow sitting at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, talking to a lover on her cell. In quick succession we meet a few other folks, two Chinese men and a blonde model, getting very sick and dying. Soderbergh lets his camera linger on surfaces -- door handles, glasses, bus poles, so that we can almost see the crouching germs. And then bingo, not 10 minutes in, Gwyneth croaks. Do you understand, people? Real stars are dying here!

Pretty soon people who cough are getting the same reaction as people who shout "Allahu akbar!" on airplanes. Doctors like Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet are tracking the virus dubbed MEV-1 while giving politicians and the audience a tutorial on the mechanics of virulence. Ordinary people like Matt Damon, Gwyneth's widower, are left to struggle with the question of when legitimate caution shades into paranoia. There's a darkly amusing scene where Damon redefines the reasons why a father might go after his daughter's boyfriend with a shotgun.

The deadly bug turns out to be the result of some unholy congress between bats and pigs, suggesting either a truly bizarre comic book super-villain or perhaps one of those X-rated late-night shows on Teletoon. MEV-1 spreads globally, and a conspiracy-minded blogger (Jude Law) claims the government and Big Pharma are suppressing the real cure. In quarantined Chicago, society breaks down. In fact the timeliest aspects of Contagion are not the references to H1N1 but the scenes that seem like recent news footage from Tottenham.

Germs of an idea

Contagion follows a bell curve, very much like the progress of a typical epidemic. It rises, crests, seems unstoppable, and then just tails off. The director's uncompromising approach eschews crowd-pleasing antics, which is admirable in its way. Soderbergh is clearly more interested in examining the behaviour of individuals and society under extreme duress than in making a traditional scare story. Scene by scene, Contagion shows all the hallmarks of effective film-making. But as a story-telling strategy, the bell curve is hardly ideal. Contagion is likely to leave audiences feeling flat. They've survived but haven't thrived.

Was the movie at least effective as a dark warning? Partway through the screening I dropped my pen on the floor. I rummaged around under the seat, found it, and picked up. Later I realized I was chewing on it. To be fair to Soderbergh though, some of us just never learn.  [Tyee]

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