After a business trip that includes Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) goes down with what appears to be a virus - and she is only the first as the fast-moving epidemic grows. Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) begins an urgent search for a medical response, as do many others in the World Health Organisation. As panic spreads, activist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) publishes inflammatory and controversial stories accusing the WHO of a conspiracy to ensure selected persons have first access to any cure. Meanwhile his associate, Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) takes a personal risk to test the 57th attempt at a solution to stop the deadly virus that has already killed millions around the world. But it's not just the virus but social dysfunction that threatens societies.
Review by Louise Keller:
There may be strength in numbers, but there are also weaknesses, as Steven Soderbergh's new thriller examines in this exploration of the vulnerability of society and human behaviour. What is most disturbing about this 'what if' scenario in which a deadly contagious disease is transmitted like wildfire throughout the world is the fact that it is not far from the possibility of it occurring. In order to allow us to connect to this large scale concept, Soderbergh reduces it to a series of tangible scenarios involving individuals, whose plight we follow during the course of the film.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns with whom Soderbergh worked on The Informant has penned a concise and complex screenplay that is circular in structure and rarely lags as it canvasses the natural unravelling of society and the glue that bonds humanity together. It's a thought provoking and engrossing film that taps on a nerve as what is effectively a ticking time bomb is set loose among society at large - with far reaching repercussions. Most effective as a social observation, Contagion works best as an overview; our empathy for those involved is limited.
Intriguingly, the film begins on Day 2, when we meet Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a businesswoman from Minnesota, who is sitting in front of a bowl of peanuts as she leaves an intimate message on the phone from an airport lounge. She is wearing a wedding ring but her conversation is obviously not with her husband. She has a cough. Within days, her distraught husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is wondering what has happened as she is taken to the hospital in a state of emergency. Suddenly in other cities around the world, patients suffering similar symptoms (a cough, a sore throat, a high temperature and a seizure) are being identified as fatalities begin in increasing numbers. The scientists and medicos start examining the data, isolating the sick and try to grow enough quantities of the deadly virus in a bid to develop a vaccine. The virus originating from bats and pigs prompts human beings to behave like animals as the situation escalates to epidemic proportions. Supermarket shelves are emptied, airports, gyms and offices are deserted and people begin to forego the niceties of society as irrationality and violence sets in.
Soderbergh has gathered a talented cast and it is with Damon and Paltrow that we identify most. Kate Winslet and Mario Cotillard play specialists in different fields who wear integrity like a badge, while Jude Law portrays a rather loopey blogger who spreads his own kind of epidemic of panic. Laurence Fishburne plays a figure of authority with his own priorities. It is not until the end of the film that we are taken back to Day 1, when we learn how it all began. Without doubt, hand-washing will get a boost from the film and we may think twice before shaking hands and eating peanuts from airport lounges. I enjoyed Contagion, although I was disappointed it doesn't deliver the power of Traffic.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The impact of a deadly virus that spreads easily through human contact hardly needs to be exaggerated; we haven't forgotten the deadly bird flu virus yet. Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a disaster movie with a message - well, more a warning: if the virus doesn't get you, your neighbour probably will. I'm not sure which is scarier. What if medical science cannot find an answer fast enough to stop such a virus, and (as with past epidemics, eg the Spanish flu and the plague) it threatens every community with wholesale infection and potential death. Every man and woman for themselves drives the fast deterioration of society's rules, chaos and anarchy break down security protocols.
Unlike sci-fi genre films in which it is man's meddling with nature or science that triggers the looming apocalypse, in Contagion we are innocent - on that score, at least. But as soon as you apply significant pressure to societies, they begin to disintegrate and individuals separate, seeking survival. But Soderbergh is not completely bleak on this score, and there are characters who do the right thing by their fellow humans, and even by society at large. Indeed, once again it is a single dedicated individual who takes the calculated risk to ... well, save the world, in effect, or at least millions of people.
The cast works as an ensemble, each playing small to medium parts in the whole, all of them delivering complete and complex characterisations, from the smallest support roles (such as John Hawkes) to the meatier characters (such as Matt Damon). Laurence Fishburne has a prominent role as the medical executive and Jennifer Ehle is engaging as the research doctor whose own research scientist father has been infected. Elliot Gould is authoritative as an independent researcher on the case.
Gwyneth Paltrow has a small but crucial role and Matt Damon is effective as her husband, who has to manage his grief amidst troubling suspicions about her fidelity. This is one of the personal points of view that make the big picture more real for us as the film counts the days and the deaths as the virus mocks our medical capability.
The multitude of characters zig zagging through the story and the doggedly documented approach all work against the filmís emotional impact. Itís a surprisingly clinical work that leaves us feeling we have just seen a long news feature on CNN.
Contagion is not an escapist entertainment; it asks each of us: what would I do, and would I be proud of it?
Published first in the Sun-Herald
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CAST: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Bryan Cranston, Tien You Chui, Josie Ho, Daria Strokous, Monique Gabriela Curnen, John Hawkes,
PRODUCER: Steven Soderbergh, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
SCRIPT: Scott Z. Burns
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Steven Soderbergh
EDITOR: Stephen Mirrione
MUSIC: Cliff Martinez
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Howard Cummings
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 20, 2011