Germaphobes beware

Sept. 11, 2011, 8:56 p.m. | By Langston Taylor | 12 years ago

"Contagion” is captivating and a little creepy

The story behind "Contagion," director Steven Soderbergh's viral action-thriller, wouldn't be particularly interesting without great performances by an all-star cast.

The film begins on "Day 2" of the existence of a new type of flu, which gives two people in the world a slight cough. Quickly, the audience sees the next few days pass by, with the camera focusing on strangers coughing on the bus, touching door handles after wiping their noses, sharing drinking glasses, etc. It is clear that this virus, whatever it is, is spreading like wildfire. For a while, though, the only vaccine doctors can give is the advice: "Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone."

Two of the first to die are the wife and son of Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), a suburban Midwestern dad who is immune to the virus. The story jumps from the United States, to Japan and China, the first countries to encounter the virus. Meanwhile, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Erin Meers (Kate Winslet) and others attempt to trace the path of the flu, which they call MEV-1, eventually developing a vaccine. But MEV-1 is not the movie's worst contagion. What is more contagious is fear.

The widespread panic caused by the unexplained deaths and lack of information causes anarchy all around the world. Grocery stores are looted, families are robbed, scientists are held hostage, and an annoying blogger (fantastically played by Jude Law), accuses the government of being "in bed" with pharmaceutical companies.
It's a chilling prediction of what insanity might occur if there is a deadly pandemic.

The fear is not limited to civilians who will believe anything they see online; it affects everyone, and is convincingly depicted by Damon, who refuses to let his daughter's boyfriend anywhere near her in case he's sick, Winslet and Fishburne, who force themselves to tell each other that Winslet's character will be okay, despite everything they know as doctors. It is clear that Soderbergh understood that the story is not in the sickness, but in the characters' reactions to it. Creepier than the thought of catching MEV-1 is the thought of what it might do to the people we know.

Oddly, the hero in "Contagion" is not a main character, and although the movie has a mildly happy ending it has no definite climax. The visuals are unremarkable, but adequate for a story that takes place in medical labs and suburban homes. The film is carried by its cast, and it's carried as well as a used tissue carries the flu. But as fast as MEV-1 spreads, the movie's tag line reminds us that "nothing spreads like fear."

"Contagion” (105 minutes) is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language. Now playing at theaters everywhere. IMAX in selected theaters.

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