Credible science emerges from film

The fi lm’s pandemic causes characters to descend into violence and theft as the virus affects them both physically and mentally. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


Contributing Writer

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I went to see “Contagion” unsure of what to expect. Good doomsday films are rare, but then again, how bad could any movie with Matt Damon be? “Contagion” turned out to be an exceptionally good movie, far from routine Hollywood style.
Director Steven Soderbergh brings a devastating viral pandemic to life in a way utterly different from the stereotypical doomsday film. The film forgoes a clear climax and resolution, ignores the conventional requirement of a strong protagonist, and instead follows multiple related plot lines in a more documentary-like style. It tracks the progression of the pandemic from the viewpoints of an international team of researchers, an affected family, and a corrupt anti-establishment journalist. The conflict centers on the development and distribution of a vaccination and the devastating effect of the virus on society. Both the content and the unusual structure of the film evoke unease in the audience.
“Contagion” assembles a truly A-List cast, including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard. Each of these cast members had performances compelling enough to carry the movie on their own, but Winslet’s performance stood out particularly. Her poignant portrayal of Dr. Erin Mears was nothing short of riveting.
The film maintains credibility through its avoidance of cheap thrills and through its scientific legitimacy. The comparison to H1N1 and other past pandemics gives the virus context in viewers’ minds, and the discussion of actual scientific phenomena satisfies those searching for believability. The one scene I took issue with was the autopsy of Paltrow’s character, Beth Emhoff. The doctors’ freak-out at the sight of her apparently destroyed brain matter gives the audience a nice thrill, but seeing the top of Beth’s head folded down over her face seemed a bit out of character for the otherwise subtle movie.
“Contagion” is thematically disturbing but not overly terrifying. The way the crisis affects society psychologically is perhaps more disturbing than the pandemic itself. Riots break characters down into anarchy. Violence and theft become commonplace. Everyone takes care of their own, sometimes at the expense of others. International politics cause tension among researchers. Society degrades into turmoil under the fear of disease.
The cinematography in “Contagion” helps hold the film together when the documentary style seems too dull. The scenes are artfully composed and have a subtle new-age feel as the camera pans and focuses in sharply on the common contacts that transmit the disease and then turns to a softer, blurred focus, creating a sense of frustration and confusion in the audience that parallels the feelings of the characters in the film. The music adds a compelling sense of urgency and suspense throughout the movie, and moments of silence seem doubly intense because of the contrast.
I left the theater rummaging for hand sanitizer and feeling a little paranoid about my roommate’s sniffling, but overall unsure of what to think about “Contagion.” The more I thought about it, the more I saw the art in Soderbergh’s directing. He went out on a limb for a new take on a traditional type of thriller and ended up with a solid product. “Contagion” successfully breaks away from the cliché doomsday film and offers the audience a refreshingly credible and subtle film with depth. Definitely worthwhile.