Friday, September 23, 2011

Gesundheit: A Big Dose of Fear On the Big Screen

Jennifer Ehle as a research scientist in Contagion
There was no way I could remain objective at a recent matinee of Contagion, the star-studded thriller by Steven Soderbergh about a new virus strain that decimates humanity. A few decades ago, I was stricken by the kind of flu that keeps moving from one part of the body to another. Down for the count, I spent five weeks malingering in bed. A friend intending to cheer me up dropped by with a gift he didn’t realize would, in fact, have the opposite effect. It was a paperback copy of The Stand – Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel, in which humanity is decimated by a new virus strain.

I finally recovered back then, of course. As an ardent believer in flu shots now, I rarely even come down with a cold any more. Earlier this month, though, I returned from a visit to Toronto with a whopper (Thank you, Canada!) that still has me hacking and sniffling more than a week later. And that’s how I slipped into a dark movie theater the other day, hoping not to frighten the few other patrons enjoying a good old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster with hordes of protagonists and extras hacking and sniffling and foaming at the mouth and experiencing convulsions.

Gwyneth Paltrow, as a corporate executive named Beth Emhoff, thinks her initial symptoms are the result of jet-lag but is the first among us to expire soon after arriving back in Minnesota from a business trip to Hong Kong. She posthumously becomes Patient Zero, probably having contaminated hundreds of strangers en route to her home in the Midwest. Her little son dies, as well, but her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) seems to be blessed with a superior immune system. He has to put aside his grief immediately thereafter to protect their daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who may not have inherited all the germ-fighting genes.

Jude Law spreads distrust
Meanwhile, American scientists and medical personnel – like the ones played by Elliot Gould, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle – race to identify the pathogen and develop a vaccine. Their efforts are undermined by Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a self-important San Francisco blogger with a host of conspiracy theories. He’s seemingly onto something when it comes to government collusion with pharmaceutical companies –  the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and Homeland Security in D.C., represented by Bryan Cranston, also get into the act – but Krumwiede’s hidden agenda is not exactly noble.

Scenes with Marion Cotillard, as a World Health Organization epidemiologist, are rather strange after she’s abducted by counterparts in Macau. They’re holding her captive until other nations agree to deliver preventative meds for the many uninfected orphans whose parents have died from the rapidly spreading illness. Since there is no onscreen evidence that her colleagues notice she’s missing, the kidnappers might want to readjust their strategy.

Maybe Soderbergh, working from a script by Scott Z. Burns, had to cut sequences that would give this poor woman some consequence. He’s got an awful lot of other stuff to juggle in his fast-paced, action-packed 108-minutes about a planet gripped by mass paranoia. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Stores shut down. With little else to do once the military blockades them in isolation zones, panicked citizens begin looting and shooting. Civil society quickly crumbles, as the misery crosses borders. At one point, our neighbor to the north refuses to share its supplies of a promising herbal treatment. (Thank you, Canada!)

Matt Damon in Contagion
The story is more visceral than that of Outbreak, the 1995 God-help-us flick directed by Wolfgang Petersen that posited members of the U.S. Army as heroes in the battle against an Ebola-like enemy. Contagion relies on civilians, regular guys and gals, some of whom happen to be dedicated physicians contending with a mostly respiratory scourge.

Nuanced performances by reliable everyman Damon and Ehle, playing bio-hazard specialist Dr. Ally Hextall, stand out in a crowd of characters talking tough or expressing sorrow or reacting to gruesome sights of sickness and death. Such a sweeping motion picture can’t afford to stop and smell the roses, but somehow those two actors convey the finely detailed emotions of a more intimate saga. Other thespians are given short shrift: Elliot Gould, as Dr. Ian Sussman, discovers a crucial clue before disappearing altogether from the proceedings. Maybe we’ll see him return as his usual master thief in the next Soderbergh Ocean’s Eleven sequel.

From 1918 to 1920, an influenza pandemic wiped out as many as 100 million people worldwide. Even with so much high-tech savvy in these times, we’d potentially become helpless again in the wake of previously unknown lethal microscopic organisms that can mutate at will. These insidious bugs benefit from their omnipresence. Any turn of a doorknob, handshake and kiss on the cheek can kill. This valid, au courant concern is what gives the film, which otherwise might have been an absurdly plotted sci-fi, its punch. Despite a few considerable flaws, Contagion certainly hit me where it hurts: my nose, throat and lungs.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment