Contagion (2011 movie) review…

Contagion (2011 movie) review after the break…

Contagion (2011 movie) review…

Humanity, the concept, is not immortal – Besides a small, orbiting space station inhabited by a few intrepid humans, humanity is limited to one tiny blue marble circling around a fairly average yellow sphere. That’s it. That is our complete and total habitat for the species known as “human.” Scientists, killjoys as they always are, have predicted that billions of years from now the party known as “Life on Earth” will end in any number of not very humorous ways: Our Sun’s energy source will eventually burn out, causing it to expand and engulf the Earth; Earth’s core will eventually stop spinning, causing the magnetic shield that surrounds the Earth to collapse and letting in lethal amounts of radiation; Gamma Ray bursts, like a sniper’s bullet, traveling forever throughout the universe, may one day strike the planet and end civilization without us even knowing about it.

These are catastrophes that are outside our range of control – There’s no feasible way for us to restart our Earth’s core, there’s no way for us to “refuel” our Sun and no way to deflect a gamma ray burst, despite all of those cheesy and outlandish science fiction films may have us believe. Perhaps in one thousand years we will develop fantastic new technologies to counteract these problems but, for now, those are catastrophes that we can realistically do nothing about – If any of those catastrophes happen… We are screwed. Game over.

Some catastrophes, though, we are able to avert through our understanding of technology – For instance, the commonly-understood fate of the dinosaurs, the asteroid collision, can at least theoretically be deflected (Bruce Willis and dramatic space shuttle launch no longer required) if we ever need to divert such a scenario.

Some catastrophes can be entirely managed – The use of nuclear weapons and all the destructive carnage that comes with that weapon can be avoided by… Just not using nuclear weapons. See? Easy. Also, we can avert environmental disaster by performing common sense activities, such as turning off electric lights when we don’t need them, restricting our transportation needs, switching to mass transit methods and converting our lives to more environmentally-friendly methods for obtaining energy.

The catastrophe known as the pandemic falls somewhere in between “There’s nothing you can do about it – Put your head between your knees and kiss your butt good-bye” and “Just don’t do the stupid thing that produces the stupid result, such as making a nuclear weapon so that it accidentally falls into irresponsible hands and is detonated in a city.” We, as a global civilization, can do something about pandemics – We can study the virus, figure out how it attacks our bodies and eventually produce a vaccine for it. Theoretically, pandemics are no longer the society killer that The Black Plague used to be. Bad? Yes, but automatically catastrophic? No.

“Contagion” is a 2011 movie about – You guessed it – A pandemic. Contagion tries to be all things to all people – It starts at “Patient Zero” (the first person who gets the disease and passes it along) all the way to the organizations set up specifically to counter such rare occurrences to the media who attempts to report on such events rationally to the everyday person who now has to wait in lines for food rationing. There are many story lines in Contagion and to follow all of them with equal curiosity is akin to juggling while blindfolded and suspended upside down – No small task.

From the start, Contagion was never meant to be a post-apocalyptic, modern-day sequel to The Black Plague where society really did buckle and break. Even at it’s worst, Contagion plays out like a theoretical big brother to the Mexican Swine Flu (and, before I get angry replies, I am aware that there are more culturally-neutral names for the Mexican Swine Flu but most people do not know of them – They know “Mexican Swine Flu” and so that is how I will identify it as such. It is not an insult to the Mexican people or, for that matter, pigs).

Matt Damon (who seems to not be missing many picnics lately) plays a struggling father and husband to a “Patient Zero” who survives but must now survive in an increasingly chaotic urban landscape as people wait in food lines; Laurence Fishburne (who definitely appears to have not missed a picnic since the turn of the century, never mind lately) plays a CDC director who knows that it was on his watch when the fit hit the shan, regardless of how well he mitigated the damage; Kate Winslet plays a medical investigator who suddenly finds herself a patient to the disease (and fighting local government bureaucracies as well); Jude Law plays an opportunistic blogger who’s never met a government conspiracy that he always believed.

The movie gets credit for showing a realistic portrayal for how a pandemic would be fought – We see scenes of scientists talking in technical terms, in laboratories studying the disease under very sterile conditions. Elliott Gould has a brief stint as a researcher who slings technical terms as though he’s an actor by night, researcher by day. I guess that’s why he gets paid the big bucks, to make it look convincing.

The movie, though, has a fatal flaw that undermines much of the film’s effectiveness in relaying the traumatic effects that a real modern-day pandemic would inflict upon society. There are a blitzkrieg of story lines, so many that describing them all would an exercise in futility. Matt Damon does his best to portray an emotionally suffering husband and father but how effective is his performance when he’s on screen all of five minutes at a time, if that? Smarmy Jude Law is the closest thing the movie has to a “villain” but how effective can he be during the limited time that he has? In one scene, he walks around in an ad hoc space suit so ridiculous that it undercuts a rather poignant exchange between himself and a former associate. That could have been a powerful exchange, sans the space suit. Laurence Fishburne as the director forced to lead a rebuttal to the disease from afarĀ  might have been informative as to how a real response might have been handled to a pandemic but the movie can never decide whether he’s well-meaning or simply another bureaucrat caught in a bad situation.

The movie tries to avert our attention-deficit screenplay by writing in witty one liners that temporarily distract from the scene cuts. The witty banter is cute (“We don’t have to weaponize the bird flu – The birds are doing that already”) but can’t make up for the reality that we never get to know any of these people well enough to gauge how the banter is meant to be taken.

Finally, the movie just ends without a definitive resolution – Jude Law is released on bail but… What about the trial? The US congress is going to hold hearing on the handling of the crisis but how does Fishburne’s character fare? Does the newspaper editor that Jude Law talked to earlier die? What about the village in Hong Kong that got the dummy supply of vaccine so they would release a hostage? The ending (or lack thereof) makes the entire movie feel like someone is watching a two-hour summary of the first season of a television series about a pandemic rather then a two-hour movie about a pandemic.

Contagion is well made and well acted. When watching the movie, there’s no doubt in a person’s mind that they are watching a movie meant for a movie screen as opposed to a direct-to-DVD production. Yet the constant switching between story lines sink all hopes of emotionally connecting with the movie. By the time that Kate Winslet dies, nobody cares because, quite frankly, she’s not developed enough as a character to care about. OK… She’s dead… Now what?

“More” is often more but, sometimes, the phrase is true – Less is more. Less story lines would have helped this movie be more of a movie and less the cinematic equivalent of a cereal variety pack: Too many choices you don’t like and not enough of the choices that you do.


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