Thursday, 27 October 2011

'Contagion' review:

In the 21st century, doomsday scenarios don't come much more frightening than the threat of a sudden worldwide viral outbreak. More than two decades since the end of the Cold War, the atomic bomb ceases to seem like a credible threat to our day to day lives - however frightening the prospect of those weapons might remain. But a deadly and highly contagious epidemic, rapidly spreading around the globe in the age of frequent air travel and increased global trade? That danger resonates stronger than ever with the public, as the sensationalist tabloid reporting on SARS and Avian Flu in the last decade can confirm. It's a fear that helped propel 'Contagion' to the top of the US box office last month, with Steven Soderbergh's latest star-studded ensemble movie exploiting our paranoia with deadly precision as we witness a queasily realistic depiction of a disease which kills tens of millions of people in less than a year.

Opening shots focus on human interaction and with great economy depict the dozens of ways such an outbreak might spread, as people shake hands, hand over money or serve food. These sinister close-ups turn everyday items and normal social behaviour into something out of a horror film. The ominous electronic score composed by Cliff Martinez (whose work was so crucial to the success of 'Drive' earlier this year) helps compound this air of tension as the sickly (and soon-to-be-dead) Gwyneth Paltrow makes her way from Hong Kong to Minnesota, stopping in Illinois along the way for some extra-marital sex, unknowingly providing us with one more example of how such an infection might be passed amongst the population.

In the wake of this first death we are introduced to nearly a dozen scarcely connecting characters who could feel more like experimental lab chimps than people, each existing to show us another face of the tragedy in a film which is primarily concerned with the mechanics of how such an event would take place and how the authorities might seek to contain it. They are for the most part ciphers, but the calibre of actor Soderbergh can attract ensures that performances are strong across the board, with Matt Damon (a grieving husband), Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne and Elliott Gould (as assorted determined scientist types), Bryan Cranston (a military man) and Jude Law (an online conspiracy theorist) helping to add personality to this determinedly sterile, macro account of events. And with one Oscar winner already in a body bag shortly after the credits, it's clear that even A-list status might not be enough to ensure survival.

As the year rolls on and the death toll climbs new problems emerge off the back of the epidemic, including widespread social unrest (looting, arson, violence, murder), political scandal and manipulation of the media - courtesy of misinformation and distrust spread by Law's popular blogger. Meanwhile doctors struggle to provide a cure and supermarkets run out of food. The wide-ranging consequences of the outbreak - presented in a hyper-realistic way - only heighten our fear of such an event, which here turns major cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco into something resembling a third world war zone. Though in spite of the film's pursuit of gritty realism, Scott Z. Burns' dense, medical jargon heavy script is still (I think playfully) peppered with disaster movie clichés ("it's figuring us out quicker than we're figuring it out!"), the best of which sees one city official oppose telling citizens to stay in their homes in the run up to Thanksgiving ("the busiest shopping week of the year!").

If his public declaration that he is retiring from cinema (pending completion of his next two projects: 'Haywire' and 'Magic Mike') is to be believed, 'Contagion' looks set to be one of Soderbergh's final films, which would be a great pity: he's often been as interesting as he is prolific. After all, he's been responsible for works as diverse as 'Sex, Lies and Videotape', 'Traffic', and 'Che', in a career spent alternating between the defiantly commercial likes of 'Ocean's Eleven' and such wilfully obscure titles as 'The Girlfriend Experience' and 'Bubble' (an experiment in simultaneous theatrical, DVD and TV on demand releasing). A few of his films have been near great, whilst others can be chalked up as folly without too much cause for controversy, but Soderbergh - one of a few directors who acts as his own cinematographer - is always worth a watch. And never more so than with 'Contagion'.

It feels slightly too long (I was surprised to find it only lasted 106 minutes) and, in terms of narrative focus, it's every bit as scattershot as its director's filmography - with some characters unceremoniously forgotten, whilst others reappear just as you've forgotten they were in the film to begin with. Yet it's gripping, frightening, filled with haunting images and, I suspect, it will come to be seen as the definitive film about worldwide medical crisis. If the worst should happen and such an event does take place in our lifetimes, you will likely here someone say "it's just like in that movie 'Contagion'" as an army roadblock closes your town. It certainly left me wanting to stockpile supplies and seal the exits, too frightened to touch my own face. And that's the sign of a good film.

'Contagion' is out in the UK now where it is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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