Cineworld Glasgow, 09.11.11

Steven Soderbergh has gathered another all-star cast for his latest multi dimensional drama, this time tracing the stories of several people all affected by the outbreak of a new virus that threatens to wipe out mankind.  Where Traffic (2000) was about drugs and the effect on people’s lives in the real world, this is a more fanciful, fictional account, based on a worse case scenario.

The cast of big names – Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishbourne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard – all get moments to shine, but as with any ensemble piece, often have limited screen time in which to make any impact. Cotillard, as a World Health Organisation investigator sent to track down the origin of the outbreak suffers the most, her storyline is the weakest and most unbelievable and means she disappears from the film just as the tension is mounting.  Winslet and Fishbourne both get better roles and make the most of them as scientists trying to discover a vaccine and limit the spread of the virus. Damon gets to play the stoic father, who loses a wife and child but battle son to protect his remaining daughter – the sort of role that Damon can play in his sleep these days.  Jude Law, as a medical blogger who takes advantage of the panic to make a few million pounds, is so odious a character, from his smarmy manner, his weasly moniker (Alan Crumweide) and his dodgy teeth, that he’s stept right out of a Dickensian drama, a Fagan for the modern age.  Every film needs a villain, but there’s no shade to Law’s character, as he leaves friends and colleagues without hope while handing out homemade leaflets advertising his conspiracy theories. The film is firmly on the side of the pharmaceutical companies, and the heroic medical and scientific doctors tasked with discovering a vaccine. 

A palette of grey, green and blue is given a faded out colour by Soderbergh emphasising the wintry chills of America and the stark medical surroundings of overwhelmed hospitals and sanitised medical labs.  Soderbergh makes great use of a still, reflective camera that lingers on shots every time someone sneezes, touches a door handle, picks up a mobile phone, emphasising the relentless spread of the virus, meaning any human contact becomes a threat. This is the Soderbergh of low-key but wide scope drama, such as Traffic or Erin Brockovitch (2000), rather than the breezy fun of Ocean’s (2001-) or The Informant! (2009), with an emphasis on real human emotion and actors, not fancy camera work or editing.

The scale of the film is also its enemy though.  As we are given population stats for every city that the characters visit, and the news footage and audio totes up the number of infected and diseased, panic spreads to the streets and we catch glimpses of rioting, looting, quarantine areas and so on. It feels like there should be more of this almost sci-fi action, but Soderbergh is determinedly keeping things low-key.  This works for the individuals stories in the most part, Damon’s particularly, but on the larger scale it feels somehow underwhelming. The eureka moment when the vaccine is discovered doesn’t feel like the rewarding moment it should do, and perhaps this is Soderbergh’s warning that there is no stopping the mutating viruses that will occur.  At the film’s end, a sample of the deadly virus is placed in a lab next to samples of smallpox, bird flu and so on. It’s inevitable that it will happen again. If anything, Contagion acts as a government information advert – make sure you wash your hands properly, cover your face when you sneeze, cook your food properly.

The sense of fear that envelops the film world gradually works its way into the audience and every cough and sniffle by those sitting next to you makes you start to wonder, if not quite bringing about all out panic.  This is not a horror film in the traditional sense, and some will be put off with the slow burning emphasis on drama, instead of gore.  One autopsy scene is particularly wince inducing but Soderbergh isn’t interested in blood and guts, but human drama.

Worth seeing if you value human drama over gore, which won’t be for everyone, but an extremely well made and effective film.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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