Friday, September 9, 2011


Director Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a catchy movie. Infectious, even. OK, I'll stop.

It's a movie about a plague – on the surface. The word alone is terrifying. Plague! It pushes our fear buttons. Contagion doesn't. "Don't Fear the Reaper" never plays. It’s not The Stand. It’s not even Outbreak. The movie is cerebral, which probably equals box-office death.

Soderbergh obviously made a decision: “The world doesn’t need another formulaic ‘Agggggh! It’s the plague!’ Hollywood movie. I’m not going to make that movie. It's been done.”

The basic plot?

Short version: A killer disease appears out of nowhere and spreads. More and more people start dying. Nobody knows what to do at first. People in labcoats slowly figure it out, and deal with it.

Long version: Beth (Gwyneth Patrow) takes a trip to Hong Kong, eats some bad pork, gets sick, comes back to the USA and drops dead. Her husband (Matt Damon) is devastated – and feels worse when his son dies the same way. Then people around the planet start dying. Medical researchers scramble to figure out what’s killing them — hundreds die before they find out it’s a virus. They try to keep it quiet, but can’t. It's a full-blown epidemic -- and the word is out. Various health organizations fight to isolate the virus and create a vaccine while simultaneously dealing with global panic. Millions die before they do.

Soderbergh takes a low-key approach to this juicy material — and avoids Hollywood clichés like the plague. (Sorry.) He approaches the disease's spread like he’s making a documentary on an epidemic that actually happened. Soderbergh's movie is scientifically literate — with a damn smart screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, built on solid medical logic, in the Michael Crichton tradition. Our understanding unfolds, based on the detective work of the movie's doctors and medical generalissimos. The epidemiology (and jargon behind the medical detective work) seems plausible.

As a sidenote, this kind of exposition is a bitch to do without boring the audience into a coma. Soderbergh, Burns and the actors pull it off. The characters start out in the dark. They slowly find out what's going on. We find out at the same time.

We discover that ...

The plague is spread by casual contact. Touch can spread it. It lingers on doorknobs. After an initial outbreak, it spreads geometrically. Two victims become 4, 16…etc. It acts fast. Symptoms don’t present for the first few hours. Then you get sick. It looks like a bad cold or the flu, at first. Then you die.

Soderbergh presents all this with cold, Vulcan logic. (The people in the movie aren't cold; but the director refuses to push emotional panic buttons.) Soderberg's logic defies expectations -- and might piss a lot of people off who expected a different movie.

There are plenty of movies this ain't. It’s not a zombie movie without the zombies. It's not a horror movie. It’s not an action movie. It’s not a suspense movie.

The story framework is a medical detective story. Inside that framework, Soderbergh’s human drama is character-based. The drama revolves around the decisions the characters must make, the pain they feel, and the bad shit they force themselves to face. He create a movie about endurance, mental toughness and problem solving. It's a study of grace under pressure.

The disease is bad, not Biblical. The 1918 flu epidemic killed 1% of the planet’s population. This disease is fatal to 12% of the population. That’s pretty bad. Even so, most people are immune.

While the disease is bad, the plague of panic it spawns is worse. (As it says on the posters, "Nothing Spreads Like Fear.") Soderbergh, again, shows us a plausible response on the part of various government entities (the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, etc.) and the public. Cops and nurses go on strike. Our country's states close their borders to other states. There's looting. To make matters worse, there’s conspiracy theory.

Jude Law plays the human vector for this virus of the mind -- a pissant blogger who rants and rattles cages. Thanks to a mix of fearless and greedy motives – his character accuses the government of a hiding both a cover-up and a secret cure; he advises his on-line followers not to take the vaccine the CDC finally develops — and take a worthless homeopathic medicine instead. But he only does limited damage.

Despite the promise of the poster, Soderbergh's central characters don't panic. They keep it together. They get the job done.

Damon puts in an excellent performance as a regular guy whose wife — Paltrow's character — just dies at the start of the movie for no reason that makes sense. Laurence Fishburne is the courageous — if coldly calculating — head of the CDC. (But he’s not so noble that he won’t slip the woman he loves a tip to get out of Atlanta as fast as she can.) Kate Winslet plays another courageous medical detective who puts herself at risk to trace the history of the disease.

Thanks to these quiet heroes, the CDC ultimately creates a vaccine. In a standard Hollywood movie following the Blake Snyder beat-sheet, this would turn out to be a false hope. (Sigourney Weaver thinks she killed the Alien — but she didn't!) People would seem cured — then start dying. There’d be a last minute rush to find a real cure. I expected that ...

I also expected rioters getting shot; the conspiracy theorist taking a bullet to the head; more gore; more death. I didn't get it. Soderbergh dishes out some gross stuff, yeah, a sawed-off skull here, a dead kid there — but that's not the movie's focus. It's not about bad shit. It's about people dealing with bad shit. But it could just as easily be Katrina or the tsunami that hit Japan. The disease is bad — but not Book of Revelations bad.

Lots of people die, but TV, Internet, phone service and electricity don't die. Civilization frays, but doesn’t break down. Ultimately, life goes on. Soderbergh could've rattled our cage with the possibility that it wouldn't. It could've been much more lurid — and dramatic.

But it's not the movie he wanted to make. The movie he made is great. Forget the movie you expected, and enjoy it.

It grows on you.

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