Thursday, September 8, 2011

When disease spreads like wildfire

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion reminds us that we're more vulnerable than we might think.
How many objects have you touched today?

That's something you probably haven't given much thought, but after seeing Steven Soderbergh's bio-thriller Contagion, you may be tempted to pay a little more attention. Throughout the movie, Soderbergh's scrupulous camera writes mini-essays on how disease is transmitted, perhaps by something as innocuous as handing a cell phone to someone who was about to leave it sitting on the bar at a snazzy restaurant.

No big deal. Things like that happen thousands of times a day. They don't much matter - until they do.

Soderbergh, a director who swings between mainstream entertainment (the Ocean's movies) and more idiosyncratic fare (Che), this time finds a middle ground. He has assembled the kind of all-star cast we used to see in the disaster movies of the '70s: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet. They're all there, but Soderbergh doesn't dwell on any of them.

I suppose Damon's Mitch Emhoff is the closest the movie comes to a main character. Damon plays a husband who loses his wife and stepson to a fast-growing virus that challenges the world's health organizations, sparks panic and threatens to wipe out millions.

Despite a stellar cast, the story - written by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote the screenplay for Soderbergh's The Informant - is less focused on character development than on relationships (some random, some not) that help create the movie's international chain of disaster.

Perhaps in a bow to his indie-oriented work, Soderbergh refuses to grab onto every thriller ploy he can put his hands on. Deliberately paced (sometimes to the point of flatness), Contagion may disappoint those who are looking for pedal-to-the-metal thrills. In truth, I sometimes found myself wishing that Soderbergh would quicken the movie's pulse.

Not that there isn't plenty to look at: Contagion qualifies as an exercise in cinematic globe-hopping as the story leaps from Hong Kong to London to Atlanta to rural China and to Minneapolis, starting with a title card that tells us we're in Day 2 of this bio-fueled tale. That, of course, immediately lets us know that Soderbergh isn't going to tell us what happened on Day 1 until the movie's almost over.

Not all the actors fare equally well. With so many characters, the script shortchanges almost all of them, opting instead to create a feeling of global catastrophe while quickly sketching its way through a variety of issues: informing the public about the disease, searching frantically for a vaccine (an effort spearheaded by a researcher played by Jennifer Ehle), and - less surprisingly - watching the impact of alarmist journalism.

Sporting a snaggletoothed look that works against his pretty-boy past, Law signs on as a blogger who sets himself up as a prophet of doom. Law's Alan Krumwiede also argues that the U.S. government is suppressing knowledge of a cure.

Whatever its flaws, Contagion never comes across as dumb; and it reminds us that we may have our collective eye on the wrong ball. Our current preoccupations -- the ever fractious red/blue divide, the mounting national debt and staggering unemployment - could be reduced to afterthoughts by something as tiny as a germ that settles on the credit card you use in a restaurant and which passes from hand-to-hand-to-hand before returning to you.

Contagion leaves you hoping that some day your credit card won't buy a lot more than you bargained for.

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