[Moving picture of popcorn]

Laramie Movie Scope: Contagion

Superflu on the rampage

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

September 10, 2011 -- Steven Soderbergh's lean, fast-paced medical thriller “Contagion” doesn't have much heart, but it has plenty of suspense and drama. Civilization is faced with collapse as a significant percentage of the population is hit with a super flu virus (based on some Nipah virus outbreaks starting in 1999) that is both highly contagious and deadly. As usual, there are some heroic doctors to the rescue, and some charlatans who get rich by preying on the fears of the masses. Conspiracy hacks get a bad rap in this movie, so if you are one, it may offend you.

The film's main character, Mitch Emhoff (played Matt Damon of the Bourne movies) is hit hard by the virus, as his wife, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow of the “Iron Man” movies) and young son are both killed by the virus in short order. Although Beth is killed early in the movie she appears throughout the rest of the movie in flashbacks. It turns out she is one of the first patients to get the disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) traces Beth's travels, as they try to find where the disease originated. This is like a murder mystery, with a virus as the killer.

Now those of you who have seen TV shows like “House” and “ReGenesis,” as well as movies like “Outbreak” and “The Andromeda Strain” will be familiar with this doctor-as-detective format, as well as the race against the clock to find the source and a cure. The patient is dying and in this case the patient is not only individual humans, but civilization itself. The film hits the ground running with lots of images, little dialog, and no boring voice-overs. There is even a knowing nod at the beginning to that venerable movie cliché, the movie cough, which inevitably leads to death. Researchers, like Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould of the “Oceans” movies) not only has to try to corral a rapidly evolving virus, but try to elude a medical bureaucracy trying to shut down his research for safety reasons. Medical detectives like Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard of “Inception”) not only run up against foreign governments that don't want to admit their country was the origin point of the virus, but desperate people trying to keep friends and family alive by any means necessary.

Meanwhile, Mitch Emhoff is trying to survive as civilization breaks down and keep what is left of his family alive. Emhoff, along with CDC janitor Roger (John Hawkes of “Winter's Bone”) are there to portray of the plight of Everyman amid chaos. Probably the most interesting character in the film is a blogger, Alan Krumwiede (played by Jude Law of “Sherlock Holmes”). Krumwiede is accused of making a fortune off the crisis by steering his readers towards a worthless homeopathic cure. In return, he is getting a big financial kickback. Krumwiede accuses the government of a conspiracy in the midst of the crisis, rather like the conspiracy theories that have grown up around AIDS, child vaccinations and other medical controversies. Also in the mix are veteran actors Laurence Fishburne (“Predators”), Kate Winslet (“The Reader”) and Jennifer Ehle (“The King's Speech”) who all play CDC doctors racing to find a cure and deal with the crisis. Most of the doctors are portrayed as heroes. Even the military comes out looking pretty good in this film. It's the conspiracy nuts who take it in the shorts, and deservedly so.

Bureaucrats, who usually are made to look like either idiots, or malevolent conspirators in this kind of movie, actually come out looking fairly O.K. in “Contagion.” One of these, Dennis French, had a face I recognized, but could not quite place. French is played by actor Enrico Colantoni, who played an alien in my very favorite Star Trek spoof, “Galaxy Quest.” French is a bureaucrat, but a smart, competent one. It turns out that if there is a deadly flu epidemic, the government is your friend, not your enemy, at least according to this movie.

Except for one very touching scene between Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and her father (Dan Flannery), the film is emotionally cool. It is a battle for survival, and there isn't much room left over for the feelings of individuals. Soderbergh tries repeatedly to get some feeling into the movie, some human emotions, but it never quite works. This stuff gets pushed into the background by film's big scale and fast pace. As a techno-thriller, however, it works quite nicely. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)