This movie is unkind to poor Gwyneth.

Contagion is easily one of the year’s best films. Even though I doubt people want to be reminded that a new bug could cause serious problems for our global civilization at any random ol’ time, you can’t argue with the authenticity and intelligence with which this film was made.

Contagion is pretty much a procedural, dealing less with drama in a conventional sense and instead allowing the realities of the situation presented to direct the storytelling and characterizations (with a few unfortunate exceptions). Most of the movie is scenes of people talking about the virus in high-level jargon that I hope fails to distance the audience as movies dealing realistically from this level of a situation ought to commit to that realism without “dumbing it down” for the audience. If a bunch of scenes of (any kind of) dialogue between world class actors doesn’t get you excited, I don’t understand you. Fortunately for both of us, this is also a very, very stylish movie.

Soderbergh is one of the best living American filmmakers. Even when he’s playing in a mainstream sandbox, he infuses his films with a unique energy that pushes a movie like this, which on paper is something else altogether, into a realm of immediacy, intensity, and suspense that is unmistakable while watching and also unmistakably Soderbergh.

Fishburne and Winslet have very choice roles as extremely selfless scientists doing their best to handle the outbreak.

The stylization and kinteticism of the film is accomplished via the use of static images, timekeeping (we are given title cards telling us what day of the epidemic it is), and a fairly retro electronic score that backs all the montages and static images. Cliff Martinez is a champ here, underlining Soderbergh’s somewhat Kubrickian sequences (particularly the eerie lab tech bits with the 60’s era colour palette and exotic technology) and doing a lot of the necessary legwork to give Contagion its momentum.

From its multiple perspectives, the film dovetails between various core stories surrounding the central premise. There are, of course, the scientists and investigators scrambling (and sometimes breaking the rules) to get ahead of the virus. The movie is also interested in the man on the ground, centering around Damon’s character who is the quietly heroic figure that just deals with this shit and provides an admirable example of the finer qualities some of us might discover if ever caught up in such dire circumstances. Then there are the beaurocrats, politicians, and the journalists. None of these are primary characters with the exception of the movie’s only real “villain”.

Jude Law plays an opportunistic blogger who, at first, seems to be spewing the kind of generally agreeable rhetoric about the relationship between Big Pharmacy and various governments and organizations around the world. At first the film seems to be making a statement about the death of print journalism (uttered rather obnoxiously by Law’s character, which should have clued me in to what Scott Burns, the writer, was really up to here). Basically it seemed like Law was supposed to be a parallel to Damon, another common citizen caught up in larger-than-life clusterfucking and navigating through it in a very different way. Instead, Law’s character is a self-aggrandizing liar and because he’s the only journalist character, who happens also to be a mouthpiece blogger spewing simplistic soundbites from the blog vs. conventional journalism debate, the movie winds up making a statement about amateur journalism, investigative bloggers, and so on that I don’t believe it properly supports. It’s the only weak link of all the subtextual commentary the movie is making about our institutions and it is so weak that it feels like an inclusion made for personal political reasons (given Wikileaks, this shit is fairly topical at present) over and above the demands of the story.

That bubblesuit isn’t the only cunty thing about this character.

I get that the characterization of Law’s character is more about lionizing the scientists and investigators while criticizing the Tea Party anti-science types who get rich off of peoples’ ignorance and flirt with a lot of danger by sticking to their lies once credibility has been attacked. The thing is, there is no alternate to Law’s character in this schema. There is no “righteous blogger” to contrast what is, thanks to the soundbites I mentioned, a caricature of a sub-culture.

So basically, yeah, I get that there are bloggers that use their powers for evil. Okay, Contagion, but what else ya got? Nothing? Then I have to hold this shit against you. You’re a great movie and all, but you really dropped the ball on this one.

Damon’s immune father and husband of the Typhoid Mary for MEV-1. His more personal struggles anchor the audience amid the less accessible sections of the film.

As I was watching Contagion, I realized that this was one of those movies that has the potential to influence a lot of peoples’ mentality about sickness and the detached-but-present danger of a similar viral outbreak in the real world. That the film spends time discussing the unwarranted hysteria over both SARS and H1N1 takes care of any “yeah, but” that might be uttered by the discerning viewer who maintains a healthy amount of skepticism about the fear-mongering in the mainstream media related to global health threats. The movie is saying yeah, they got it wrong with those two specific cases (and probably many more in the past) but that doesn’t erase or offset the potential for any of this sort of thing to actually happen. Anytime at all.

On that score, Contagion feels like the right kind of artistic interpretation of the threat of a new superbug. It is not fear-mongering and realistically limits the scope of the virus (it kills only 1 in 4) making this not an apocalyptic movie but a disaster movie. That lends another layer of realism to the proceedings as we might accept the premise of an unrelentingly lethal disease as set-up for a post-apocalyptic setting but a movie about the onset of such a disease has to compete with the fact that we’ve been literally plagued by them throughout our history and have proven to be a bunch of goddamn robust virus-busters.

Still, the horror of the movie is in the uncertainty of what seemingly innocuous symptoms can really mean in the world of a superbug, where millions of people could and would be infected before anyone knew it was more than a flu. You can imagine yourself wearing one of those masks, like some people did during the H1N1 scare a few years ago. You can also feel, vicariously of course, the angst of an impartial affliction that you can’t defend against, that spreads explicably but also exponentially.

But beyond that horror is the hope that our measures and preparations against such a thing would prove effective. Not only based on the efficacy of our science but also on the courage of the scientists and government types we trust to weigh the scales between protocol and urgency, which as Contagion shows us, can make differences as large as millions of lives.

So definitely see Contagion. Movies like it don’t come along very often, Soderbergh and this cast are always worth your time, and you will come away with something a bit finer than sheer entertainment.

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