“CONTAGION” – 4 1/2 STARS

Whether it be “Twelve Monkeys”, “Virus”, “Outbreak” or the new Steven Soderbergh project “Contagion”, I’ve always had an affection for end of the world, deadly virus movies. In “Contagion”, Soderbergh takes a much different approach than most of these types of films, choosing to give it a more realistic and clinical feel. I’ve heard it described as a “medical thriller” and that’s pretty accurate. We spend a lot of time with scientists and doctors from The Centers for Disease Control and The World Health Organization as they try to identify and find a cure for a ravaging epidemic. Soderbergh fills his film with an incredible cast most of which are perfectly utilized. None of them play the one key protagonist. Instead each are cogs in Soderbergh’s greater machine.

The movie wastes no time getting things started. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts a mysterious virus while on a business trip in Hong Kong. Before the symptoms set in and on her way home to her husband (Matt Damon) and children in Minneapolis, she stops off in Chicago where she not only has a quick fling with an old flame but passes on the highly contagious virus. After arriving home, Beth develops a cough and a high fever which results in her being the first casualty of what becomes a  worldwide epidemic. Damon’s storyline gives the movie it’s biggest injection of humanity. It brings the seriousness of the threat to a household level and for the most part is very effective.

Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the CDC teams up with Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to find the origin of the virus which they hope will lead to a cure. This is where the movie really takes off. Fishburne and especially Winslet are convincing as doctors who are well versed in science but caught completely off guard by both the nature of the disease and the rate of it’s spread. In fact, it’s a professor (Elliott Gould) defying direct orders from the CDC who gives them their first lead towards a viable vaccine. What makes this work is Scott Burns’ incredible dialogue. It’s crisp, intelligent, and filled with all sorts of medical lingo. But it never gets bogged down in the terminology. Instead it feels like we’re sitting in on these intense and urgent conversations.

Soderbergh also introduces us to Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), sent to Hong Kong by the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the virus. Me also meet Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger who is actually more of a conspiracy theorist. He believes that the government is hiding information and threatens to reveal it regardless of the consequences. We even get John Hawkes in a minuscule role as a janitor at the disease center. Each of these character’s stories branch off from the main narrative and each offer some interesting angles. But there are huge gaps in Dr. Orantes’ story that I wished had been filled in a little. Also Hawkes’ character is terribly underwritten. I also didn’t find any of their individual endings all that satisfying.

“Contagion” moves at a sharp and steady pace, never letting the audience feel as though the threat has let up. Soderburgh throws us plenty of curve balls and no character is too big  to fall victim of the virus. Knowing this had me constantly questioning how the movie would end. The first part of the film is the strongest and it does a great job of setting up the threat. It also got in my head as it showed the numerous ways germs can spread. Soderbergh’s closeup shots of door handles, drinking glasses, and handshakes had me developing my own personal phobias. The second half of the film features some riveting sequences showing the chaos brought on by the quarantines and shards of misinformation that was spreading throughout the cities. The great thing is that Soderbergh doesn’t milk these scenes. He gives us just enough of them to set the proper tone.

“Contagion” is a movie that starts a lot stronger than it finishes but it never goes off the rails. It’s biggest problem is that it branches out in too many directions and ends up shortchanging a few of the characters. But it’s still a high quality film that doesn’t give in to any one single formula. It develops the threat, raises the stakes, and lets a remarkable cast tell the story. Soderbergh puts together a really good film here.

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4 thoughts on ““CONTAGION” – 4 1/2 STARS

  1. Pingback: Above the Line

  2. Reblogged this on Above the Line and commented:
    Steven Soderbergh’s movie Contagion as reviewed by Keith and the Movies (keithandthemovies.com) and Above the Line:Practical Movie Reviews (rorydean.wordpress.com).

    Two very different takes on a killer bug movie.

    I think this is my first ‘re-blog’ or if not one of a few. As I’ve written elsewhere, I find some of the most entertaining conversations about films involves the ones we disagree with the most – like night and day, you loved it and I hated it or vice versa or both at the same time. Movies are entirely subjective experiences that involve a myriad of sensations and reactions, favorite flavors and personal tastes that inform your decision to be there in the first place – maybe your favorite director is taking you on a long overdo voyage to trip the light fantastic or the actor you’ve been watching since he/she made that no budget character study back in the decade before that has you curious and excited. Some films seem to come out of nowhere but all the critics talk about them as the ‘writing on the movie theater bathroom wall’ that a star was on the rise and that’s enough to sell plenty of tickets. Sometimes we just need an escape and the best rocket ship we know is at the movies for two hours at a time of senseless mayhem and extraordinary situations with laughs, tears, chills and fears. And then there are movies like Contagion that hold a different place for different folks, the science of the science of it, the combined effect of so many talented actors working with a celebrated director who very often shoots, writes, directs, produces, edits, and has a hand in almost every aspect of the production, and all these things line up in the celestial heavens of Hollywood and there you have it – Contagion.

    I’m a recent visitor of Keith & The Movies http://wp.me/p29UaD-10 but I was impressed with his writing and style. I stumbled across his review of Contagion and quickly realized we came up with not just different opinions but diametrically opposed reactions to this film. I mean we’re not only in different ball parks in different towns but we’re in different hemispheres on different planets in galaxies far, far away. I’m not suggesting he’s right or wrong any more than I’d claim my review is better or worse for having such harsh brass tacks hatred for this film. Well, maybe hatred is too strong a word. Disappointment? Lack of enthusiasm or perhaps I’ve seen enough ensemble films that employ the adage more is more because it’s more-better with more big stars in the story and I’m tired of the gimmick. I’d rather spend more time with fewer characters. That’s just me. What I think is the most interesting about this little exercise of comparisons is how we come to explore the film and the story with a lot in common – we both appreciate story driven narratives, good acting and structured filmmaking except we like the same things differently. We arrive at different places for similar reasons. Get it?

    Keith was impressed with the cast and this carried him into the film whereby I found the actors didn’t have enough to do or their characters were given menial tasks and little in the way of specificity. He notes this as well, especially with John Hawkes character. I mean I don’t want to give anything away but lets just say several of the biggest stars have very small horizons. Where Keith appreciates the medical jargon and quick paced lingo I felt like it was lifted from any number of serialized television shows and just when I was looking for warmth and nuanced performances I got stuck with a lot of technology heavy plot mechanics. Maybe I’m still recovering from Marion Cotillard’s brittle dead wife performance in Inception (my take on that film in general here http://rorydean.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/inception-2010-blu-ray/ and again here http://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/inception-a-k-a-exposition/ which too might be coloring me undeserving against Ms. Cotillard. I do agree with Keith that Fishburne is notable if only that he is convincingly cold and authoritarian. It just makes me want to see more of him post Matrix. He’s got a lot more acting to do. I also agree with Keith that Soderbergh knows his way around shot composition and pacing but disagree that he achieves them to full effect here. Jude Law is just a good actor in just about anything he does.

    So like I said, this really is my first time reblogging comparative movie reviews and I’ll just have to see how it goes. My take on Contagion on the one hand and Keith’s take on the film on the other sounds like it could be an interesting experience for all of us. This post is just a starting place that I hope invites you into the conversation, presents two thorough, detailed and well written assessments of this film and I hope you read each of them and then return here and discuss your thoughts and reactions. Of course be sure to leave some thoughts at both of the original threads to show your love and respect of all the hard work that goes into writing movie reviews. Just remember movie reviews are not about who’s right or wrong but about the potential for movies to excite and reward the imagination and bring us all together to share the revelry of the cinematic experience whether we agree with one another or simply find ourselves challenged enough to care.

    For more reading on the subject of this movie, the films and filmmakers referenced and the Bloggers involved in these articles, please visit:

    Rory Dean on Christopher Nolan “http://rorydean.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/christopher-nolan-master-and-commander/”

    Keith on Contagion “https://keithandthemovies.com/2012/01/24/contagion-4-12-stars/”

    Rory on Contagion
    “http://rorydean.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/contagion-2011-blu-ray/”

    • Very nice feature. I love the idea and I love being involved. So glad you’ve visited my site and hope to see you around often.

      I love the way different takes on movies can bring out some good conversation. This is a great way to do that. I really did enjoy Contagion. Just finished writing my review for Soderbergh’s latest “Side Effects. Not as big of a fan. 🙂

      • Brand new to me…seen it there but always felt intimidating or worse, rubs someone the wrong way. A year or so ago I actually got a pretty nasty email from someone who felt that I was exploiting their readers for daring to include a link back to an article I wrote about the comparative features of negative criticism as a vehicle for change in contemporary storytelling and his view was that I was only there to snipe his readership. Never mind he had no reaction or comments to my comment of 200 words.

        Glad you appreciated the effort. I have you on my list now. Now I just have to make them rounds more often 🙂

        Btw, I just revised my reblog, polished it a bit.

        Haven’t seen Side Effects yet. I’ll probably wait for a rental. cheers0>

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