Friday, September 16, 2011

Contagion - Terror in a Handshake

Two falls ago, our population fell pray to the H1N1 virus. We are testament to how that pandemic played out. Now Steven Soderbergh's 'Contagion' brings out the ghastly possibility of a far more deadly mutating virus unleashing into today's global village. One claiming millions of lives even as the officials and doctors clamor to find a vaccine. It all starts with a cough. Beth EmHoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) on her way back home to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong makes a layover at Chicago. Looking visibly unwell, she makes inevitable physical contact at the airport. The germs are spreading. Back home, in the throes of sudden seizure she dies and her son soon follows. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), surprisingly immune, is stunned by the devastating turn of events and terrified that his teenage daughter will be affected.

From this personal tragedy we are swiftly transported to China, England, Chicago where similar cases are registered. The Centre of Disease control in Atlanta gear into action with Dr. Cheevar (Laurence Fishburne) sending Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to track down the spread of the virus.  A WHO official Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) makes a trip to China to locate it's origin, recreating patient zero Beth's movements there. As the bodies pile up, search for a vaccine is on in epidemiologist Dr. Ally Hextall's (Jennifer Ehle) lab. Even as the key players are introduced, the science of the disease and the ramifications of daily motions such as handshaking, touching our faces, making contact with fellow humans bear down on our by now hypochondriac selves.

Scott Burn's screenplay wisely keeps sensationalism out of the happenings. Soderbergh's film works as a procedural where enough thrills and chills generate from the realistic unfolding of events. Scary is the possibility of how real this catastrophe could be and that is what draws us in on the horror. It takes the exact opposite route of an earlier pandemic movie 'Outbreak' with Dustin Hoffman which had Hollywood blockbuster with superhero scientists writ all over. The players here, despite being Hollywood A-listers, approach their unglamorous roles with a sense of urgency bring reality into their characters. Especially effective is Jennifer Ehle in her struggle to jump hoops to get the vaccines tested and brought to the public.

 There are no sob inducing personal tragedies, largely seen in disaster movies, here. Tragedy strikes through this movie some million times over, but the only human face put to it is Mitch. The virus is the central character here and holds all attention moving from its outbreak to an available cure. In that journey we encounter pharmaceutical companies standing to make a profit, bureaucratic red tapes, a doctor's desperation to test her vaccine on humans, a possible scapegoat in the CDC. The politics of the disease is as frightening as its science. A kidnap in the middle of the movie is a reminder that even with a vaccine available, just how hard it could be for the ordinary person in an obscure corner of the world to lay hands on it. Where the disease can spread, the cure might not.

Also terror inducing is the internet media's role. Embodied by a journalist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude law), with his own agenda to push a homeopathic drug, his blogs on conspiracy theories within the government and Big Pharma lead to panic and lawlessness among a population of 12 million following him. Always goes to say, it is the panic that has more casualties than the disease itself. Stores are vandalised, pharmacies ransacked, homes robbed as food becomes scarce and FEMA struggles with supplies. Bodies are refused burial and instead pile up in makeshift graves. Cities are quarantined.

Soderbergh uses similar skills that he applied for his award winning 2000 movie 'Traffic'. The massive  scale of the story is seamlessly tied together. It is a beautifully shot movie in all its bleakness and the soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, a Soderbergh regular, is perfect in creating a sense of panic in us. Technically and performance wise, it is hard to fault the film. It packs in quite a punch in its 106 minutes runtime. The ending is especially chilling, where in a couple of montages, the innocent origin of the bio-threat is revealed.

Even as people, hoping for a blockbuster fight with the virus, might be dissappointed. This is no Hollywood fight with aliens, machines, zombies. We have seen plenty of those come with alarming regularity. Finally a disaster movie that could be, is now in the theaters. And if it be, what could actually happen to the world at its mercy. Purell, anyone?

Released in 2011
Running in Theatres
My Rating: 4/5

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