Friday 20 March 2020

Contagion (2011)

Yes, I was as curious as everyone else who had been watching Contagion over the past week or two. So I caved in and gave it a watch for myself. It had been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years, to be fair, and I figured that now was as good a time as any.

It's the tale of a global pandemic, as unbelievable as that sounds, which is all inadvertently started by a bat (I know, I know, impossible). The first person to be affected by things is Gwyneth Paltrow, getting such a dose of the virus that not even a vagina-scented candle can heal her. She is married to Matt Damon, and they have a teenaged daughter. Other people who end up closely working with the virus include Laurence Fishburne (as Dr. Ellis Cheever), Kate Winslet (Dr. Erin Mears), Marion Cotillard (Dr. Leonora Orantes), Elliott Gould (Dr. Ian Sussman), and an Australian (?) blogger, played by Jude Law.

Written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, allowing him to utilise the kind of interweaving and fractured narrative style that he seems to prefer for stories with a BIG picture, Contagion is a film that most definitely feels more like a documentary right now. The timeline shown at every step of the way is scarily close to what we're going through here and now. That may prove some comfort, but may also worry some people more who are already worried, so I am not sure if it's one to recommend at this time or not. Interestingly, the one main factor not explored enough in the movie is the HUGE economic impact, something many of us (who have lost jobs or income) are all acutely aware of right now. People being told to self-isolate without sick pay, people being laid off, many venues eerily empty, cinemas, galleries, and museums closed, and if you think folks are rushing out to buy a car or house in the middle of a global pandemic then you can think again. Contagion conveniently forgets to show us that massive upheaval, because these kind of things never affect the Matt Damons of the world.

The performances are all generally very good, especially Fishburne, Winslet, and Damon. The jarring exception to that rule is Law. I don't know who decided that his character needed an accent, and I still am not entirely sure where it was supposed to be from, but it's so bad that it ruins what could have been an absolutely fine, if unnecessary, addition to the plot. His character is there to antagonise those in charge, and to pull back the curtain, in a manner of speaking, while showing what is being hidden from the general public. The point being that it is often hidden because a) those who are in charge aren't much further ahead, in terms of knowing how to deal with the situation, and b) protecting the general public from their own actions is as important as curing the virus (something I think we can all agree on after having seen the disgraceful behaviour of many in recent days). I just wish that point could have been made without using Law's character.

Engrossing from start to finish, and with a nice balance between standard thriller tension and something far more grounded than you might usually get from this, Contagion is the global pandemic equivalent of The Andromeda Strain. Both are riveting without aiming to sensationalise things too much. And you get some scary facts interspersed throughout, although finding them out now may just be enough to help us consciously change some of our behaviours/habits when they most need changed.

It's also worth remembering the tagline: "nothing spreads like fear". Take heart in something fictional, even if it is hewing VERY close to where we are right now, and do so while taking whatever precautions have been deemed necessary to protect people from a particularly nasty bug doing the rounds right now. Then follow it up with Osmosis Jones. It's the virus/Laurence Fishburne double-bill you never knew you needed.


Contagion is available digitally, which saves you battling to the shops to buy it.

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