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Contagion Rises Above the Average Virus Attack Movie

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Warner Bros., 2011

I’m not sure we’ve seen a straightforward virus attack movie since 1995’s Outbreak.  Either the virus has already wiped out most of humanity (12 Monkeys, I Am Legend) or it’s turning us into zombies (Resident Evil, 28 Days Later).  We haven’t seen one that focuses on what might happen when an epidemic of the proportions the bird flu or H1N1 hoped they could have been actually occurred.

Steven Soderbergh, who said he was going to retire at one point, who has said that those reports were overblown and he needs a break, will still be coming out with like 4 more movies after that announcement.  The guy is coming out with two this year (including Haywire) and he still has a Man From UNCLE remake and a Liberace biopic underway.  Prolific, yes, he can come out with some experimental crap now and then, but for the most part Soderbergh is one of the best directors we have in this era.

Teaming with his The Informant writer Scott Z. Burns, Contagion focuses on a virus that takes hold of a person and kills them in days.  We see Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) get sick early into the movie, and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) sees her die after she returns to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong, one that also includes an extended layover in Chicago and a dalliance with a former flame.  It hits his stepson Clark (Griffin Kane), too.  Before he knows it, the only person left in his life is his teenage daughter from a previous marriage, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron).  The virus is spreading, and much like all the viruses in which you’ve ever heard, it’s killing a small amount of people but no one knows what it is.

Enter our disease control specialists: Scientist Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who is trying to find a vaccine based on the work of Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould).  We have Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is trying to corral as many people with the virus she can in Minneapolis.  Head of the World Health Organization Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) plays politics in Atlanta, and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) investigates the origins of the virus spreading in a Hong Kong casino.

Then we have blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, which makes all three stars of The Talented Mr. Ripley present).  He believes that the government is withholding information about the virus and wants to make a ton of money off of it somehow.  You might think you know what his character really is from the get-go and most of the movie, but you don’t.

So this is where the virus movie is really scary.  I suppose contracting it would be awful, but for those who survive, we might have to worry about the panic of others, and the ransacking of food, water, and gas.  Free-for-all crime.  Unreasonable people.  It’s kind of weird when the nasty, killer virus starts not being the scariest antagonist.

One thing I’m grateful for in this movie is that this virus was not created by some evil corporation and now they have the military to come in for two hours trying to cover it up.  Almost every virus movie has this motif.  It’s good to see one of those viruses that no one is really responsible for (although, eh, Soderbergh does get in a cheap shot at a corporation’s inadvertent, but shameful, culpability by the time it’s over).

This movie is pretty intense.  We have a ton of great performances in small roles here.  It’s an ensemble piece, where no one is really the main character, although it’s mostly Matt Damon’s movie.  The relationship between he and his daughter is where the emotional weight is supplied, while we get the awesome procedural medical drama mostly from Ehle, Winslet, and Cotillard.  September usually doesn’t see this kind of quality, and it’s more than welcome.

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