“Contagion” Not Particularly Catching

When you go into your favorite watering hole to enjoy a beverage, have you ever noticed a bowl of peanuts or some other snack on the bar? If so, do you help yourself? Now have you ever thought about how many other strangers’ hands might have dipped into that same bowl? Have you also observed that many supermarkets and other stores have germ-killing wipes or lotions at their entrances? Do you use them or just walk on by?

After you watch the film “Contagion,” I think you may never again partake of free peanuts or any snacks in an open container at a bar, and I guarantee that you will make use of the hand-cleansing devices available at the entrance to various stores. In fact, you may find yourself donning rubber gloves and a surgical mask whenever you go shopping.

The truly terrifying premise behind “Contagion” is the outbreak of a pandemic initiated by an airborne virus that inflicts victims with a nasty cough, followed by a fever, a seizure, and ultimately a deathly brain hemorrhage. The film’s tagline is, “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone. Stay away from other people.” But following this advice is a bit difficult for Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has just returned from a business trip to Hong Kong. (How in the hell can you stay away from other people in a place like Hong Kong?)

When Beth returns home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis, she has a cough and feels very tired, but she attributes her symptoms to jet lag. Two days later, she suffers a foaming-at-the-mouth seizure and subsequently dies in the ER of a massive brain hemorrhage leaving the doctors and her stunned husband to wonder what in the hell happened.

During the ensuing autopsy, the coroner cuts into her skull, takes a look, and exclaims, “Oh my God!” His assistant asks, “Should I all someone?” And the coroner replies simply, “Call everyone.”

Shortly thereafter people all over the world begin dropping like flies, and the medical community is thrown into a state of chaos as it attempts to stop the spread of something it hasn’t even yet identified. As the film progresses, it focuses on several key characters. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is the deputy director of the Center for Disease Control, and he is responsible for devising a plan to identify and stop the spread of the virus in addition to keeping the public informed of whatever progress is being made.

One of Cheever’s key colleagues is Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an epidemic intelligence service officer for the CDC whom Cheever reluctantly dispatches to a dangerous area where he knows she may become infected with the virus. Another key player in the unfolding drama is Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a representative of the World Health Organization charged with keeping track of global information.

Of course, in a film like this we must also have someone who is desperately trying to discover a cure for the virus, and that unenviable task falls to Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle).

Beginning with day two of the infection, the film moves back and forth among all these characters as they each attempt to get to the bottom of a pandemic that ultimately kills more than a billion people within a period of about six months. And if the rampant virus isn’t bad enough, a radical, shit-stirring blogger named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) insists that the public is being kept in the dark about with whole thing and adds the elements of mistrust and anger to the entire mess.

Now if this sounds like something that a real medical thriller should be made of, you are absolutely right. Unfortunately, however, the most frightening part of the film is simply its basic premise because the action in the film fails to establish and sustain any sense of urgency and/or suspense. I walked into the theater expecting to see a bona fide medical thriller with the kind of edge-of-your seat tension that made a classic like “Coma” such a good movie, but instead I watched a film about a terrifying disease slog along disjointedly from one point of view to another.

The true horror of this film is that it is something that could actually happen, and no one could do anything to prevent it. In the film’s production notes director Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich”) explained what he thought was fascinating about the film’s idea.

“I think it’s always compelling to watch people struggling with a real-world problem, especially one with a ticking clock, where the stakes couldn’t be any higher.”

Also in the production notes, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Informant”) revealed the genesis for the film. While the two of them were working on “The Informant,” they traveled quite a bit, and this led to a bit of introspection.

“Steven and I spent a lot of time on planes, and we talked about how often it seems people get sick when they travel. So the idea began as an exploration of the vulnerability of human beings in public places. I think all of us, when we come down with something, tend to think back over the past few days and who we spoke to, sat next to, or touched. It’s human nature.”

For all the star power the film packs, not one performance really stands out because everyone in the ensemble cast seemed to be pretty much on the same acting level – adequate but nothing exceptional. This is another disappointing element of the film because when I first read the cast list, I thought the film couldn’t miss being a complete triumph on the screen.

Please remember, however, that commenting on films is a completely subjective process, and numerous people have found this movie to be riveting entertainment. All I can tell you is that my wife and daughter, who saw the film with me, and I had our high expectations destroyed. Perhaps we were expecting too much, but all of us thought the movie was at once slow and a bit confusing in places. Now here are three things that particularly disturbed me, and they not in any particular order.

First, although Law’s portrayal of the eccentric blogger is all right, his character doesn’t really fit in the way he should with the rest of the film. He just keeps reappearing at random moments throughout the movie, and then he disappears until he shows up again. I really couldn’t figure out why he was necessary.

The second thing that bothered me was what became of Kate Winslet’s character. She is brought into the story to assist in gathering information about the rapidly escalating infection. And then we see her become ill, but that’s it. We never know whether she lives or dies because she just drops out of the movie.

Finally, the film begins on day two and progresses through the days, weeks, and months until the end, when we finally arrive back at day one, which offers an explanation of where the virus originated. But you have to pay attention because if you don’t, it will be gone. The whole sequence occurs much too fast. 

“Contagion” (It gets a final score of six.) will certainly make you think twice about shaking hands, eating snack mix at a bar, grabbing the support poles in buses and subways, and avoiding like the plague being around people who cough and sneeze. At one point I even removed my arm from the armrest in the theater seat where I was sitting. But while it makes you aware of how germ-laden everything is, the film does not offer the necessary escalating tension to make it a truly good medical thriller.

And here’s just one other thing. It’s bad enough that I was disappointed in a movie I was really looking forward to seeing, but ever since I left the theater, I’ve had this nagging cough.


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