Friday, September 30, 2011

Contagion

"Night of the Coughing Superstars"
or
"Please Wash Your Hands Before Exiting the Theater"

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.  Or even to crowd The Bitch.  Because, sooner or later, she's going to look at all that nice smooth asphalt we've laid across her, and send up some crab-grass to seek out the weak spots and crack it.

"How do you like them pot-holes, Ozymandias?"*

Steven Soderbergh's "pandepic" Contagion fits quite well in the movie medical chest that includes such plague-filled films as Panic in the Streets, The Satan Bug, and The Andromeda Strain (one could also mention "The Stand," I Am Legend and the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes—even, if we're talking Gaia's uprising, such natural disasters as The Happening (2008) and The Birds)—an organized, technologically advanced, scientifically-disciplined infrastructure is helpless against a simple organism that spreads through the sheer inevitability of exponentiality.**  It also cross-germinates into the "Butterfly Effect" genre (see Babel, 21 Grams, Crash)—you know, where we're all so interconnected that if a butterfly sneezes in China, we'd better cover our mouths in the United States or else we'll keel over into the Stone Age.***  And with so many stars (all very good, actually), it also reminds of one of those Irwin Allen SAG-slaughter disaster movies of the 1970's, that featured tag-lines like: "Who Will Survive?"

Contagion comes a few years after the majority of us could dismiss SARS and H1N1 in the real world with a blithe "where's the pandemic?" (completely dismissing such very real threats as AIDS and the hair-trigger Ebola and Marburg viruses).****  But, it is chilling that with all our research capabilities, we'd still be running behind any new threat, simply because the little suckers can evolve faster in the gut than we can be creationists in the lab.  And Scott Z. Burns (who wrote Soderbergh's The Informant! and is updating "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." for him) has taken an...er...clinical approach with his screenplay, starting moments after "first contact," following the progress of the disease from China, to the United states, its spread and detection by the Center for Disease Control and their efforts to isolate the cause, and, possibly, find a cure.  However fast they go (and it's a process hampered by testing schedules and production runs...and which pharmaceutical companies will profit from it), it's not enough to prevent wide-spread death and a near-collapse of societal structures throughout the world.  "It's figuring us out faster than we're figuring it out," says one of the techs (Jennifer Ehle) to her boss at CDC (Laurence Fishburne)...and it doesn't have a bureacracy to work through.  The drama is situational, so don't go in expecting ambulance chases and LED countdowns to disaster, but situations where families are ripped apart, investigators become victims, and desperation becomes just another symptom.  It's a procedural with a widely-flung spray pattern.

The cast is amazing...Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet...and just when you think they've run out of actors, up turns John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, Demetri Martin, and Bryan Cranston...you half-expect the full cast of Ocean's 13 to show up and cough out cameos.  No one dominates, everybody underplays, and the heroics are human and low-key. 

Nicely done, and food for thought, just wash your hands before eating.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a 2:00pm appointment for a flu shot.

Contagion is a...*cough*...Matinee. 

* "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'


** We could also mention "The War of the Worlds," but there, the bugs are the good guys.

*** A better example would be: "If Greece doesn't raise its debt-ceiling, should I rollover my 401k into doubloons?"

**** And yesterday, I heard people are dying from Listeria-infected cantaloupes! 

3 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Clinically written, but smartly too. Sure, there are little things that make me go hmmm, like the vaguely accusatory way in which Gwyneth's patient zero is addressed or even Law's journalist (Law, nonetheless, gives my favourite performance) but it's a solid feature and expertly directed, I think.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I didn't mention the fact that the guy who edited Contagion (and most of Soderbergh's films), Stephen Mirrione, does the same job for Iñárritu and Haggis. He has some special skill for linking disparate places and characters and making them flow together without hitting the nail on the head, as many films do (ie. cutting from one person driving in one situation to another driving somewhere else). For me, Winslet, Fishburne, and Ehle gave the best performances...and kudos to Damon for making the "Can I talk to her?" scene be horrifying rather than giggle-inducing.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

They're all so good really but spontaneously ranking them I'd go Law, Fishburne, Winslet, Damon, Paltrow, Ehle, Lathan, Cotillard.

I'm so with you on Damon in that scene, he really makes it work better than you'd expect it to.