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Review: Soderbergh’s Contagion sets new bar for viral pandemic thrillers

By River Reporter Oct 25, 2011

By Joyce See

SARS, Anthrax and biological weapons capable of decimating populations with chemical quantities that fit in the palm of your hand – the first decade of the 21st century has left most of us hyper-aware of the potential dangers of viral disease. 

Enter Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s (Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic) new fast paced thriller about a lethal virus which evolves into a worldwide pandemic and kills millions worldwide in months. 

Cleverly, the film starts with a coughing Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) waiting to board a plane at Chicago airport. The camera lingers over the jar from which she picks peanuts for a second too long, and then blurs in and out, focusing on the various points of contact between Paltrow and her surroundings.

Soderbergh’s obsession in Contagion is contact. The film traces the movements of an ensemble cast of Oscar-wielders seeking to trace, evade and cure the virus. 

Two days after Paltrow’s character returns to her son, Clark (Griffin Kane) and husband Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis, she lapses into seizure and dies. Her son Clark follows soon after, leaving a stunned Mitch reeling at his sudden losses.

We move swiftly through characters, days and cities with the help of straightforward captions and a feverishly paced score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, The Lincoln Lawyer,Drive). Cases start popping up in Asia, South America and Europe. 

Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Mystic River, and Apocalypse Now) plays US Centre for Disease Control’s (CDC) Dr Ellis Cheever at the forefront of the investigation into where the virus originated and how it can be cured. Fishburne sends Kate Winslet (Titanic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) playing Dr Erin Mears to Minneapolis to investigate Beth Emhoff’s death. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard – La Vie En Rose, Inception) of the World Health Organisation flies to Hong Kong believed to be the root of the problem.

Jude Law (eXistenZ, The Talented Mr Ripley) plays pharmaceutical blogger Alan Krumwiede who posts videos of an alternative cure to the one devised by the CDC online. This sparks widespread chaos, with people storming pharmacies and looting supermarkets, hinting at the delicacy of the global situation and the imminent dangers of societal breakdown.

The film’s strength lies in allowing the truth and harshness of a viral reality to carry it through. No amount of special effects or fancy plot lines could better portray the potential helplessness of a global population in the grips of biological crisis than Soderbergh’s composed and sober portrayal of how a viral pandemic might spread.

We see the vulnerability and the fear that has taken over the lives of the characters. Through innumerable subtle shots of people touching people, touching things, the network of actions and interactions between the characters seems to spell out the impossibility of remaining germ-free in the modern world. 

Safe for the easily depressed, this film is a definite must watch for those who have had it with far-fetched disease-centred films of cheesy old Hollywood.

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