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Friday, September 16, 2011

Contagion (Release Date: 9-9-2011)

        Americans are obsessed with the notion of apocalypse. Hordes of movies are dedicated to it each and every year, wether our downfall be a natural disaster, zombie epidemic, or extra-terrestrial invasion. It would be easy enough to write this off as an artistic indulgence were it not for the concept's prevalence in all of our daily lives. News reports warn of economic doomsdays, the rules of sanitary safety are constantly re-written, and internet articles slather blame and shame on anyone with a name you can recognize. It's this hourly avalanche of fear mongering and loaded words that makes us the scared people that we are, and Contagion is a movie set on putting that that all on display.

        The film is a globe-trotting yarn about the sudden spread of a viral infection, witnessed on scales both microscopic and massive. We open with business/family woman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home from a trip to Hong Kong with a pretty nasty cold. Turns out, it's a bit worse than a case of the sniffles, as Beth dies within Three days of contracting the unknown virus, leaving her husband (Matt Damon) baffled and alone. The big wigs are on it right away, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling in Epidemic Intelligence Service officer Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), as Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization toils away in far-off China. There's also a muck-raking, rumor-spreading blogger (Jude Law), a kindly but nosy janitor (John Hawkes), any number of scientists working on a cure (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, and a puzzlingly and distractingly cast Demetri Martin among them), and about a bajillion other characters.

        To say that Contagion is a big movie would be the ultimate understatement. What it's doing in September, removed from both awards season glory and (perhaps more fittingly) large-scale Summer entertainment is beyond me. Director/Producer/Cinematographer(!?) Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to large casts with impressive names (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven and its sequels) but even by his standards, this seems like quite the project. There are literally no fewer than 30 characters who play an important role in the film, and it is the remarkable accomplishment of Soderbergh's direction and Scott Z. Burns' script that you end up genuinely caring about almost all of them. Unfolding in a slow, methodical manner, the flick is made weighty and terrifying because of its commitment to realism. It shows the outbreak, the reaction to the outbreak, and the reaction to that reaction, and at every step, it rings true.

        There's little need to discuss the acting here, as it is so uniformly strong that no one really stands out. Every time I near the conclusion that the finest performance belongs to Damon, I flash back to a scene of Law's deliciously over-the-top turn, Winslet's sturdy determination, or even young Anna Jacoby-Heron as Damon's strong-willed and loyal daughter, and am forced to bite my tongue. Contagion is a fascinating film, One that manages to warn about the dangers of fear while it simultaneously scares the day-lights out of you. It's this devilish contradiction that gives the movie its traction, along with superb craft on each and every level. I was all in with it until the last 20 minutes or so, and while the film's conclusion does strike me as something of a let down, what came before it simply cannot be denied. Contagion is electric entertainment that stokes the imagination, capable of the rare feat of deeply effecting the way you experience the world for at least several hours after viewing. See this movie, and then wash your hands afterwards.

Grade: A-

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