Friday, September 9, 2011

Is Contagion Contagious?

Short answer: maybe. Depends on the kind of movies you like.
“Contagion” opens today, with its star-studded cast and director Steven Soderbergh amping expectations.
First, I love procedurals and medical stories and suspense thrillers. So I should love this, right? And I do, to a point.
The acting is good, especially Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet. Jude Law sports the ugliest set of teeth ever, presumably to reinforce that he is English. Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow are good, but their talents are underused I think.
The story of a rapidly lethal new airborne virus that quickly spreads worldwide is a great premise. (Watching the credits, I also thought this movie was a good excuse for some great trips – to Hong Kong, China, London, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and Minneapolis.)
Gwyneth Paltrow’s luck may have been good at the craps table, but not after the virus claims her as the first victim.

Anyway, we follow each of these people and many more, as the story cuts back and forth to them, all over the place. If you are not paying close attention, you’ll soon be lost.
The best thing about this movie is the medical jargon and explanations, which are really fascinating. I actually learned something. And this part was entirely believable and, I’m sure, rooted in real science. So we have every reason to worry about this seemingly unstopped epidemic that threatens to rival the Black Plague in fatalities worldwide. Many scenes show either the utter cluelessness of people, or the irrational response to the news of the virus as it leaks out (no pun intended). Panic, which the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and all kinds of others have tried to avoid by keeping the information under wraps, is inevitable.
The actors portray doctors and scientists (Fishburne, Cotillard, Winslet), ordinary people caught up in the growing tragedy (Damon, Paltrow, and many others), and opportunists (Law) – who is exploiting a dubious cure to further his blog. Scientists frantically try to understand the virus so that they can develop a vaccine for the bug that is killing 25 percent of its victims. It has a high incidence of transmission, but the scientists don’t know exactly how it is transmitted.
Of course the suspense arc of the film is: How long will it take them to find the source and a vaccine – and will it be in time for those with whom we have become acquainted?
My chief complaint is that the film felt flat to me, without a real heart-pounding climax. I also felt that because of the large cast, I really didn’t get to know anyone, so I wasn’t very invested in them. The movie, paradoxically, seemed to rush through their stories, while plodding along at the same time. Stories should have “acts,” and varying tension. This seemed to stay on a pretty even keel throughout. And the ending was stunning only in that it ended rather abruptly.
The one actor I have to take issue with was Elliott Gould, as another researcher. His acting style has always been a little affected, but in this I felt he was reading/reciting every line. I did not think he was effective in the role.
So, while I’m critical of many things, there are also many bright spots. Many scenes have stayed in my head, replaying and replaying. There were many interesting subplots – which would have benefited from being developed a bit more. This is not for children, who would not only be bored but probably grossed out, particularly by the autopsy scene (as even the adult audience seemed to be).
Maybe I was just in a mood. Most critics liked it, as did a majority of audience members, as reported on Rotten Tomatoes. If I see it again, I could love it.
This is one of those movies you’ll have to see to judge for yourself.
First impression: I’m giving this movie 2 1/2 reels out of 4.

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