Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

December 6, 2012

"Contagion" a compelling speculation of apocalypse

Staff Writer
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Director Steven Soderbergh brings his distinctive style to the oft-explored end-of-the-world/apocalypse genre with “Contagion,” a film that’s heavy on style and realism, but which lacks in character depth and, to a lesser degree, relatability.  

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a working mom, recently returned home from a business trip to Hong Kong as “Contagion” opens. She’s sick with an illness she believes to be a cold, but which we know is far more serious.

Assuming she has nothing more deadly than a cold, Beth proceeds to unknowingly infect person after person until she suddenly collapses and dies one morning at breakfast.

Doctors initially attribute Beth’s death to a freakish, yet explainable illness. By the time they realize something more insidious is wrong, hundreds upon thousands the world over are showing signs of infection. Even Beth’s biological son (Griffin Kane) isn’t spared.

Interestingly, Soderbergh opens with “Day 2,” leaving the source of Beth’s infection a mystery until the film’s final shot. With that single exception, he proceeds from Beth’s illness to tell his multi-threaded story sequentially.

Each new day (or set of days) brings an exponential, seemingly out-of-control spread in Beth’s infection, until millions upon millions are dying.

Matt Damon plays Beth’s husband, Mitch, who turns out to be immune to the rapidly spreading infection. Mitch’s biological daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) also appears immune, but Mitch is uncertain and spends the film working to protect her from infection in a world falling into panic and chaos.

Simultaneous to Mitch’s story, there are multiple other narratives interwoven throughout “Contagion,” all of which serve the over-arching story of a swiftly-growing pandemic that kills roughly one in four victims as it sweeps the globe.

Soderbergh assembles an impressive ensemble to play the various disease specialists and bureaucrats who’d no doubt be working in overdrive in a similar real-world scenario, including Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould and Laurence Fishburne.

And work overtime these characters do, exhibiting all the brilliance, resilience and human foibles one might expect from real-world counterparts.

One disease researcher working in a lower-level containment lab, for instance, ignores orders to shut down his research of the pathogen, because experts realize they’re dealing with a pathogen requiring the highest disease-containment protocols.

The researcher’s defiance turns out to be boon, as he alone finally discovers a way to successfully grow the pathogen in the lab, a critical first step toward developing a vaccine.

Another character, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne), the CDC specialist in charge of finding a vaccine, tells his wife to get out of Chicago in advance of a mass quarantine soon to be imposed. Cheever orders his wife not to pack, not to tell anyone she’s leaving and to go immediately, a clear violation of his position and his access to inside information regarding government response to the pandemic.

Yet another character — a faux journalist (Law) — uses the pandemic for profit, all the while misleading the masses to believe he’s working for their good.

I at first found myself underwhelmed with “Contagion’s” scope, thinking it too limited to create a believable sense of a world gone sick and panic-stricken.

Soderbergh, however, surprised me and does a nice job of slowly expanding his film as he uses the ever-growing pandemic to ratchet up the tension and increase the pressure on his characters to both find a vaccine and to deal with the disease in their personal lives.

Unfortunately, the film’s ever-increasing scope and constantly-shifting perspective comes at the price of satisfactory character development.

More, “Contagion” sports a relatively short runtime for such weighty, far-reaching subject matter, and, in the hands of an auteur like Soderbergh, might’ve benefited from some extra time getting to know these people.

Overall, however, “Contagion” is memorable and entertaining and provides a realistic view into what the world could become if faced with a truly global pandemic.

It’s certainly worth the price of a rental.

Rating: Howl

Score: 80/100

Runtime: 106 minutes

Rated PG-13 for disturbing, illness-related imagery and language

Rating System Explained: Rabies = 0; Yip = *; Bark = **; Howl = ***; Lone-wolf howl = ****; Leader of the pack = *****

Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011.