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Movie Review: Contagion
by Scott Nehring, Contributing Writer
Should I see it?
Nah.

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston and Elliot Gould

Rated PG-13 for language and people dying slowly of a viral infection

A pig flu from China spreads across the globe thanks to a gawky Minnesota wife who spreads the virus like butter across the Midwest. Society begins to disintegrate over the next few weeks as random people contract the disease and slowly die with dramatic gasps.

It's the family fun movie of the year.

Director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's 11, Traffic) has made a timid, yet realistic film about the individual impact of a deadly epidemic.  The outbreak and cure are seen through the eyes of characters at different parts of the event.  There is the hapless husband (Matt Damon) who watches his wife and stepson die of the disease.  He then has to cope with society crumbling as the disease kills millions of others.  We also follow the young CDC doctor (Kate Winslet) and her mentor (Laurence Fishburne) as they navigate the political and administrative realities of managing an outbreak.  Off on the side a CDC scientist (Jennifer Ehle) works frantically to find a cure.  These narrative strings work well together and give a pretty full look at the main aspects of the outbreak.  On one hand we see those in charge of providing an resolution and on the other we have a man stuck living with the results of their work.

Unfortunately for the film, these aren't the only story lines.  Shoehorned into the related tales showing the governmental cause and effect are two additional tales.  One storyline covers the smarmy blogger Alan (Jude Law) who is the first report on the spreading deadly disease.  Instead of acknowledging his presence and then moving on, the film focuses on Alan's growing online popularity and his attempt to illegally capitalize off his readership.  The other inserted storyline involves a CDC investigator (Marion Cotillard) who goes to China to locate the origin of the virus.  She is kidnapped by her Chinese counterparts and forced to tend to a small village suffering from an outbreak.

If these last two story lines seem out of place it is because they are.  It is due to these two story lines that the film ultimately doesn't work.  The film loses any chance of building momentum or suspense because it is forced to weave in and out of barely related subjects and people.  Given that the main antagonist is an invisible virus all of the main conflicts need to be told to the audience rather than shown.  This means there is actually very little action on screen to compel an audience - in other words, character is everything in this situation.  Too many characters leads to too many narrative branches which leads to a muddle, unsatisfying stew.


Worldview: To give Soderbergh credit he clearly attempts to present the epidemic in a realistic setting.  Gone are the usual Hollywood gimmicks.  He avoids the expected "doctor(s) with martial issue(s)" and doesn't have the grumpy obstructionist government official.  This is refreshing and gives the film a sense of seriousness.

Where Soderbergh and company succeed in showing a more realistic view of pandemic, they also manage to show one that is almost completely devoid of humanity.  The virus kills randomly and without mercy, just as it would in real life.  Children, the elderly, women and men are all cut down.  What I found interesting is that Soderbergh's handling of this litany of death is as amoral as the virus doing the killing.

When someone dies in the film, their death is shown in a series of symptoms.  Their quick decline is presented without overt drama or any other pageantry.  They're sick, boom, they're dead - show the corpse.  Those left behind are provided a brief moment of grief - no wailing, no deep depression.  The death is explained scientifically and we all move on.  There is no mention of God, a soul or any other theological musing.  Moreover, there are no real emotional or spiritual connections severed by the deaths.  Quite simply, Soderbergh shows us a a losing virus in a purely biological battle.

The trouble here is when you present life and death and you remove it from the metaphysical realm, when you remove God, you make man into nothing more than just another biological function.  Without God we have no meaning and no intrinsic value.  Ultimately, it doesn't matter if a virus wipes us out.  Actually, that would be best because in a Godless universe the organism with the strongest staying power is the ultimate authority.

This is why when I was watching the film for the second time, I started thinking it was possible Soderbergh may have been considering his virus to be the real hero of the story and what I was witnessing was a very strange tragedy - tragic for the virus, not man.

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