‘Contagion’ (2011) review: A new definition for ‘going viral’

‘Contagion’ an infectious thriller

“Contagion,” in which a deadly virus spreads faster than the latest YouTube sensation, blends the modern strands of a disaster movie in such a brutally effective way you may never leave your home without hand sanitizer again.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”), “Contagion” is about more than a viral menace. In essence, it’s about fear: how it can debilitate even the most rational person, how it can devolve some of the most sophisticated cities in the world into utter chaos. Scientists (portrayed as Big Government in a strange, tea party manner) provide the cool center to this pandemic, while the average layman succumbs to his baser instincts, fighting for himself over the common good. It wouldn’t be so terrifying if it weren’t so believeable, especially after natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina where we saw society revert back to a more primal stage.

“Contagion” starts on Day 2, and we’re already introduced to a sickly looking woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) after returning home from Hong Kong. Within minutes, she’s writhing on the floor, foaming at the mouth and eyes glassing over. Her husband, Mitch (a crucial if hardly seen Matt Damon), quickly learns her death wasn’t caused by something she ate. Instead, the cause is unknown. But it doesn’t stay unknown for long. It seems nothing moves slowly in this movie, especially the virus, which razes everything in its wake. Anyone who shoke hands, turned a door knob or came into contact through any myriad ways with an infected person risks a quick and painful death.

Working with writer Scott Z. Burns, editor Stephen Mirrione and composer Cliff Martinez, Soderbergh paints the story with a near-palpable energy, shifting from screens shrouded in black to dousing acters in a nauseum-inducing yellowish light that works wonders in a movie about death. The scenes again jump to other people — a young man in Hong Kong, a Japanese man on a plane and a model in London — who play small but important roles in unraveling the origin of this deadly mystery.

The scariest part of “Contagion” is not that a virus killed 26 million people. Instead, it’s in the simplicity in how it does it. There are no flesh-eating zombies or terrorist cells waging war. It just like the flu, only deadlier. Those trying to stem the tide of ever-increasing deaths are Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; field doctor Erin Mears (Kate Winslet); C.D.C. doctors Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin); and World Health Organization doctor Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard).
In what could be considered a stinging rebuke to the free-form nature of blogging and its effect on the Fourth Estate, one of the main antagonist is San Francisco blogger Alan Krumwiede (a snaggled-tooth Jude Law), an opportunist who both follows the pandemic from its beginning and pushes a holistic cure, forsythia (a yellow flowering plant used in traditional Chinese medicine), on his popular blog. It’s a dangerous game he plays, using his forum of choice as a bully pulpit to rage against what he considers an unscrupulous government only seeking to pad its coffers (even though the government is actually the good guy here).

Fear is a powerful emotion, and more often than not it causes more hardship than any actual danger. “Contagion” epitomizes this. It simultaneously shows us the best and worst sides of ourselves, pitting those lending a helpful hand against those who’d rob from you without a second though. The scary part is not knowing which side will win out.

Four infectious stars out of five, and a critic’s choice.

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Matt Damon is shown in a scene from "Contagion." (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Matt Damon is shown in a scene from “Contagion.” (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

15 responses to “‘Contagion’ (2011) review: A new definition for ‘going viral’

  1. Wonderful review. I’ve always been somewhat underwhelmed by Soderbergh. His version of Solaris was crud, Oceans 11, 12, 13 are nothing new — even his “avant-garde work” Schizopolis (1996) is nothing to praise… Same thing with the Che series. Albeit, I haven’t seen Traffic….

    In short, I hope this is “actually” a good film. Not some middling attempt at greatness.

  2. It’s very slow… I warn you — have you seen any of Tarkovsky’s other films? He’s probably tied with Eisenstein as the most important Russian director of ALL time. You should definitely see at least ONE of his films…. Probably Andrei Rublov, Solaris, or Stalker.

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