“Contagion” Goes Viral, Again

Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman as the Indy Jones of infectious disease busters, and Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” with Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, have become pandemic must-streams on Netflix and Cinemax, respectively. “Outbreak” (1995) exploits an Ebola-like scourge to mine formulaic “Oh, gross!” shocks while “Contagion” takes a more clinically mater-of-fact approach and is, consequently, a lot more sobering and alarming. Here’s our opening weekend assessment of the 2011 Soderbergh release.

Cover Your Mouth, Please!

by Glenn Lovell

After fidgeting through Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” you’ll want to make a beeline for the nearest restroom to wash your hands. Thoroughly.

As you file toward the exit, you’ll avoid touching railings, doors … the person in front of you.

“Contagion”  is hardly what you’d call a feel-good communal experience.

This is one of those films that you can admire without particularly enjoying. At times it plays like a feature-length public service announcement, a duck-and-cover-your-mouth drill, with the culprit now being a mutant superbug rather than radiation.

Bug-resistant Damon

In shock appeal, it’s closer to the BBC’s once-banned docudrama “The War Game” or the more recent “The Road” than to, say, “Outbreak” or “28 Days Later.” After being infected, Soderbergh’s victims convulse and froth at the mouth. Forget the deathbed speeches. No time.

Employing the interconnectivity conceit that served him so well in “Traffic,” Soderbergh, working from an original screenplay by Scott Burns, traces the deadly disease from a Hong Kong casino to London to San Francisco and heartland America. The Typhoid Mary or possible Patient Zero is a fatally outgoing American businesswoman named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Peltrow). On her way back to husband Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth stops off in Chicago for a little R&R with a “former” lover. By the time she’s back in Minneapolis, she’s displaying worrying symptoms: a hacking cough, high temperature, excruciating headache.

Rushed to the hospital, she’s dead within hours ‒ and, as the scope of the epidemic becomes clear, investigations are launched by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control, the latter led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), who places Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) in the field to isolate the sick and set up quarantine centers. Other plots radiate out like the threads of a spider’s web. One involves a private lab researcher in San Francisco (Elliott Gould), another a resourceful but ultimately self-serving blogger (Jude Law, doing his best Fleet Street impression), a third an epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) dispatched to Hong Kong to retrace Patient Zero’s steps.

A global pandemic, the mystery virus has soon claimed 26 million lives, 2.5 million in the U.S. A news alert reports that the president has “gone underground” and Congress is conducting business online. Fearing an infected person could act as the perfect suicide bomber, the suits in Homeland Security curtail civil liberties.

The race is on to ID the virus, replicate its growth pattern, and manufacture a vaccine

As he has before, director-cinematographer Soderbergh takes us from the personal ‒ an immune father (Damon) does whatever’s necessary to keep his daughter safe, a scientist (Jennifer Ehle) plays Madame Currie and tests a potential vaccine on herself ‒ to the widespread ramifications: looting, riots, pharmaceutical companies jockeying for the “miracle cure.”

“Contagion” is nothing if not an ambitious and timely undertaking, enlivened by a handful of truly jarring moments, including a rather graphic brain dissection. “Should I take a sample?” asks a doctor. “I want you to move away from the table,” replies his boss, obviously confronting something not in medical texts.

As an urgent warning, the film works. But as compelling drama, something you want to recommend to your friends, it leaves much to be desired. The Damon and Fishburne subplots, in particular, struck me as predictable and melodramatic; the scenes with Cotillard felt like they were plucked from a more mainstream thriller. The kicker, where we flash back from Day 135 to Day 1, is, however, worth the blend of shock and suds. In a variation on the Butterfly Effect, it reminds us that when a banana tree falls in Asia, the deathly thud can be heard halfway around the world.

Contagion ✮✮✮ With Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Elliott Gould. Directed by Steven Soderbergh; scripted by Scott Z. Burns. 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense scenes, fairly graphic autopsy)

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