This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 13th November 2011
Forget zombies, aliens or supernatural beings, fomites – that is, inanimate objects capable of carrying infection – are the new instrument of fear, spreading end-of-the-world-panic in a matter of days, as the planet’s population risks being swiftly decimated by a mysterious virus.
Director Steven Soderbergh has a knack for fun and wit (see Oceans Eleven et al), but arguably a better talent for the serious, as evidenced in his Oscar-winning film Traffic, which dealt with the various effects of drug crime on different milieus of North America and Mexico. And so here, when one of Hollywood’s biggest stars is killed off in the opening scenes, you know his film means business.
A businesswoman returns from a trip to Hong Kong, and immediately falls gravely ill. Meanwhile, people in Tokyo, Canton and Chicago are sweating and coughing on public buses, touching doorknobs, handrails and passers-by. Before you can say “Marie Curie”, Epidemic Intelligence Service officer Kate Winslet (excellent as always) and Laurence Fishburne are joining forces to track the origin of the virus and prevent its spread. Calling in the WHO (personified by the increasingly ubiquitous Marion Cotillard), the various strands of the story pick up pace to mirror the rate of infection.
The boffins are great (principally the fascinated but emotionally remote Jennifer Ehle) and even the science they teach us is enlivened by such phrases as “the wrong pig met the wrong bat”. The “conspiracy” strand, however, while necessary as a realistic depiction of how the online world responds to outbreaks and dramas of all sorts, is undermined by Jude Law’s dodgy tooth and even dodgier Australian accent, as his blogger improbably meets US officials in rainy public parks to convince them that “12 million unique visitors” to his website think his is a voice worth listening to.
As with all Soderbergh’s work, the film is beautifully lit, shifting between a lush colour palette and the greys of illness and death. It’s well acted and largely compelling (it’s always reassuring to have Matt Damon steering you through troubled waters), but, despite this, somehow doesn’t quite capture the desperation of the situation.
Using the same notion of universal applicability as A Nightmare on Elm Street (which posited that anyone who fell asleep might be murdered in repose), Contagion‘s effect on the cinema-going masses may be proven by an increase in diagnosed cases of OCD and sales of hand sanitiser.