Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Elliot Gould, Sanaa Lathan, and Jennifer Ehle all contend with a mysterious global virus in "Traffic" director Steven Soderbergh's nimble global disease thriller "Contagion" (*** out of ****) that Gwyneth Paltrow precipitates. Mind you, "Contagion" is nothing like director Wolfgang Petersen's germ warfare thriller "Outbreak"(1995) with Dustin Hoffman. Soderbergh and "Bourne Ultimatum" scribe Scott Z. Brown maintain an impersonal rather than a glamorous tone as this international medical procedural maps the spread of a pandemic which can kill an individual in three days. Researchers christen the virus, MEV-1, and stare in horror as the virus wraps its lethal tentacles around the globe, killing one in every four people and terrifying everybody else. Not long after the viral outbreak, people become leery of mingling in public. The policemen and hospital workers strike. Society and the rules which govern it collapse, and pandemonium engulfs everyone. Indeed, Soderbergh has assembled an impressive celebrity cast, but limits their presence throughout the matter-of-fact 105 minutes so nobody stands out like in his "Ocean's" franchise. The characters belong to one of three groups: first, the field agents who encounter the disease first hand; second, those behind the scenes who struggle to develop a vaccine; and the administrators who must control the hysteria. Unfortunately, despite his admiral efforts to give "Contagion” a documentary flavor like the classic 1965 "Battle of Algiers," Soderbergh sacrifices the usual Hollywood heroics which would make the action appear charismatic. Doctors and researchers disobey their superiors and take chances that they are ordered not to take. Predictably, mankind survives but the pandemic takes the world to the brink. Watching "Contagion" is like watching the anatomy of a disaster on Public Television. You will exit “Contagion” knowing that you touch your face 2-thousand times a day. When you aren’t touching your face, you are touching something else or somebody else who may be infected with germs. Inevitably, as liberal-minded as Soderbergh is, "Contagion" boils down to a cautionary yarn about tampering with Mother Nature. While the Asians play a major role in the virus, the virus come about as the result of an American corporation that destroys the wilderness with no thought about the consequences. You might not want to dine out at an Asian restaurant after you watch this atmospheric thriller.

“Contagion” opens during the second day that the pandemic has spread. Traveling business executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow of “Country Strong”) has attended a groundbreaking for a new factory in Hong Kong. Afterward, she celebrates with several colleagues at a casino in Macau. What poor Beth has no way of knowing is that she has become infected with a virus that came about as a result of the construction of a new factory. The company bulldozers drove huge bats out of their nesting area, and the bats relocated to a swine farm where they infect the pigs with their guano. Beth flies back to the U.S. and squeezes in enough time for an extra-marital fling in Chicago before she goes home to her dutiful husband Mitch (Matt Damon of “Hereafter”) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Meanwhile, other people that Beth came into contact with in Hong Kong are dropping like flies. A waiter collapses, and one of Beth’s colleagues dies aboard a commuter train in Japan. Initially, when Beth left the casino bar, she forgot her drink. A Ukrainian woman hands Beth her cell phone that Beth had forgotten. The woman is found dead in her motel room later by motel authorities. Eventually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, investigate and suspect that Beth is patient zero for the epidemic. Meantime, things worsen for Mitch when his elementary school age son Clark (newcomer Griffin Kane) dies from the virus, too. Incredibly, Mitch learns that he is immune from the disease and he takes his daughter Joy (first-time actress Anna Jacoby-Heron) out of school and refuses to let her boyfriend visit her for fear that he may contaminate her.

In Atlanta, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne of “The Matrix”) sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet of “Titanic”), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, to fly to Minneapolis to supervise the investigation. Meantime, the World Health Organization in Geneva dispatches its top epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard of “Inception”) to China to search for the origins of the disease. Not long afterward Mears comes down with the virus via infected motel workers. A brilliant civilian scientist, Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould of “Ocean’s Eleven”), at Stanford becomes the first to create the virus in his laboratory, while one of Cheever’s own CDC staff physicians Dr. Ally Hextall (two-time Tony-winner Jennifer Ehle of “The Adjustment Bureau”), concocts a vaccine by experimenting on herself rather than waiting. Ironically, both Sussman and Hextall achieve their discoveries because they violate CDC policy. They discover that the disease contains genetic elements from bat and swine viruses. At this point, virtually everybody around the world is wearing a mask for safety’s sake. Cheever confides in his wife that she must leave Chicago and come to Washington. Thieves break into Cheever’s home and threaten his wife Aubrey Cheever (Sanaa Latham of “Love and Basketball”) while they ransack the premises vainly for the vaccine. The CDC establishes a lottery to determine who gets the first vaccine shots. Throughout this global crisis, a lone-wolf journalist, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law of “Cold Mountain”) who believes in criminal conspiracies has been blogging about the disease. He claims that he came down with it and used another prescription drug to cure himself. Homeland Security officials eventually arrest him for spreading rumors.

Although Soderbergh and Burns do an exemplary job of covering all the points on the compass of the global pandemic, they end up giving their one-dimensional characters the short shrift, especially the WHO epidemiologist in China. We never get to know any of the characters beyond the glimpses that we are given. Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Matt Damon fare better than Jude Law, Elliot Gould, and Marion Cotillard. Indeed, Soderbergh shows us the frightening logistics that complicate finding a cure for an unknown virus, but “Contagion” never generates any charisma.