The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"CONTAGION"

Contagion

In the 1970s, we used to see a lot of star-studded “disaster movies,” in which a legion of famous faces banded together to escape burning buildings, take control of air disasters, or make their way through overturned cruise ships. Although those pictures seem a little cheesy now, films like Contagion owe a debt to them. The modern disaster movie similarly assembles an all-star cast, but the threats are more immediate and universal: the drug problem (Traffic), racism (Crash), and, in this instance, the possibility of a global epidemic.

Contagion looks at the very real possibility of an airborne virus spreading around the world. It does so from the viewpoints of multiple characters: Gwyneth Paltrow plays one of the first victims (and, no, that's not a spoiler); Matt Damon is her grieving husband who tries to prevent his daughter from also becoming infected; Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard are doctors working to track down the source of the virus and prevent the spread; Laurence Fishburne is the Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control, who is supervising the search for a cure; and Jude Law takes the role of a blogger who believes the government is not being as proactive in dispensing treatment as it should. The film bounces back and forth between all these characters, showing us the trajectory of the virus, as well as the reaction to it. We see how it spreads, how it takes lives, and how it creates chaos as people are quarantined and supplies run low.

This is scary stuff. Epidemics have been covered before, in books like Richard Preston's terrifying non-fiction best-seller The Hot Zone and in films like 1995's Dustin Hoffman thriller Outbreak. Those works were released before SARS and H1N1, so while the subject matter may not be fresh, it is certainly timely. Director Steven Soderbergh achieves maximum creepiness by utilizing frequent closeups of people touching things: door handles, drinking glasses, cell phones, elevator buttons, etc. This makes you realize, with a queasy feeling, how many things you come in contact with that have previously been touched by dozens of other people. The world we live in is an unclean place, with germs breeding everywhere. Anything you touch potentially exposes you. Soderbergh keeps that idea front and center throughout, giving Contagion a continually unsettling vibe.

He's cast the movie well, too. Damon, in particular, delivers a very emotional performance – the heart of the film, really – as a man who has seen the virus's impact firsthand and is desperate to avoid seeing it again. It's fascinating the way the screenplay uses some of the actors. Paltrow dies in the first five minutes, yet is in more of the film than you'd expect, given that her character is key to determining how the virus began to spread. The characters played by Winslet and Cotillard also end up taking different trajectories than their introductions lead you to believe. Bringing in an A-list cast and then putting them in unanticipated situations goes a long way toward keeping the story, like the virus itself, unpredictable.

The primary flaw is that Contagion tries to take on too much all at once. It wants to explore the idea of a worldwide epidemic from every possible angle, all in 105 minutes. Because of that, the plot bops around, occasionally in a hurried manner. Some things could have been explored in more detail but are glossed over in order to move on to the next thing. While a few movies bite off more than they can chew, Contagion tries to shove the whole thing in its mouth at once.

I can't deny its power, though. Soderbergh has crafted a picture that steadily plays on your fears. Watching it, I became aware of every time I was touching my face. I wondered about who had touched the armrest of my seat before I sat in it. That real-world connection keeps you glued. Contagion takes you through a whole cycle of the epidemic, making you acutely aware that everything it depicts could happen for real. I'm willing to forgive its flaws because, quite frankly, the movie works as a reality-based thriller. It gave me the chills. Strong acting, atmospheric direction, and a nail-biting premise add up to a movie whose impact is hard to ignore.

( out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

Contagion will be released on DVD and in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack on January 3. It will also be available for download/purchase through digital retailers.

The supplemental material on the Blu-Ray totals less than half an hour, but the quality of it is pretty high. "The Reality of Contagion" is an 11-minute exploration of the truth behind the film. Real-life scientists inform us that a pandemic such as the one shown in the movie will absolutely happen someday. They also talk about how disinformation is just as dangerous as a virus itself, because it causes people to panic. Watching this feature, it's clear that the filmmakers took great pains to be authentic in their depiction.

"The Contagion Detectives" spotlights the real disease fighters, and gives us a peek into their world. One of the actors notes that they are "true heroes" for being willing to handle such deadly viruses. Interestingly, actress Jennifer Ehle states that she asked the two CDC specialists she did research with if they'd ever test a vaccine on themselves in an emergency situation. Both said, without hesitation, that they would.

Finally, there's "How a Virus Changes the World," a two-minute animated segment that gives you a synopsis of how viruses are created and spread. It's a short, effective primer on the subject.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are tops, with Contagion's atmospheric cinematography looking especially good.


Contagion is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.