“Contagion” is like a Discovery Channel documentary, except with huge stars


Given the way things are going in the world right now, it’s only a matter of time until we also have to endure some kind of global pandemic involving a lethal virus, right?

Well, if you want to see a preview of just how that might go down, look no further than the new Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, which does for viral pandemic what his Oscar-winning 2000 film Traffic did for drugs.

In other words, it’s sort of a film mosaic on the topic at hand, featuring a number of different storylines, all very realistically portrayed and all featuring big-name stars, as they attempt to deal with the fall-out from a new mutated flu virus that’s spreading world-wide.

Before I go any further, I have to ask: is there really anyone who wants to see a movie like this, which is nothing if not a complete downer? Now? With the world very realistically melting down in so many other ways?

No matter. The movie is what it is, and it’ll find exactly the audience it deserves.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays an executive who’s been on a trip to Hong Kong and comes home with a bad case of the flu. Before long, she’s sneezing on people, and possibly spreading a deadly new virus all over Minneapolis where she lives with her hapless husband (Matt Damon). She might even have left the virus in Chicago, where she had a brief layover with her secret lover.

Before you know it, people are dropping like flies, and it’s up to CDC doctors (played by Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Laurence Fishburne at his gravitas-y best) to try to make sense of what’s happening. Meanwhile, an intrepid blogger with delusions of grandeur (Jude Law) is trying to call people’s attention to would-be corruption in the government.

One interesting thing about the movie: despite its very A-list cast, your expectations may be toyed with a bit as individual stars don’t necessarily last long on-screen. (And Gwyneth Paltrow haters rejoice: there are a couple of scenes that will make you particularly happy!)

Given that this is a Soderbergh movie, it’s no surprise that it’s well-acted and nicely shot. It’s also obviously very well-intentioned, taking a “serious” topic and, as with Traffic, turning it into popular “entertainment” (of sorts).

Alas, the least interesting part of the movie is the script, the writer of which was obviously given the mandate to be “realistic.” What clearly wasn’t a priority was particularly interesting characters or engaging storylines. It’s a thriller that’s just not very thrilling.

And even when it comes to the movie’s obviously intentional realism, it seems to me like it tried to do too much. One of the movie’s advertising taglines is “Nothing spreads like fear,” but you know what? That’s not really what the movie’s about — or, rather, that’s only a very small part of what the movie’s about. It’s also about vigilantism, spousal betrayal, grieving a loved one, internet credibility, the actual biology of viruses, the creation of vaccines, martial law, societal breakdown, the importance of family allegiances, and, well, lots of other stuff.

It just doesn’t go into any detail about any of this. Would it have killed them to pick a theme, or even a general take on the overall topic, and just go with it?

The whole thing also seems weirdly dated. I loved The Hot Zone when I read it back in 1994 (and I even went to the terrible rip-off movie, 1995′s Outbreak, when Jodie Foster‘s Hot Zone movie fell through).

But The Hot Zone was so successful that it didn’t just create worldwide awareness of the prospect of viral pandemics; it created a whole literary (and movie) genre, the bio-thriller.

Contagion is really just an art-house version of The Hot Zone. But if you’re going to do an arthouse take on the bio-thriller, shouldn’t you come up with some fresh new take on things?

Like a deadly virus itself, the bio-thriller genre has long since mutated, giving us interesting, sometimes introspective movies like Carriers, I Am Legend, The Road, and The Crazies, and TV shows like Fringe (which frequently deals with viral outbreaks) and The Walking Dead (which is part of a whole bio-thriller sub-genre, the viral zombie movie, which was inspired by 28 Days Later, the 2002 movie that popularized the idea the zombies could be caused by viruses).

In short, when it comes to viral outbreaks in entertainment, “realism,” this movie’s one selling point, has been the standard operating procedure for well over a decade.

Bottom line? Society has long been inoculated against movies like Contagion. Viruses need a lot more bite than this one to raise much of a fever.

Watch the Contagion trailer below:


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