Monday, 10 October 2011

'Contagion' Review

'Contagion' (dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2011) Cert: 12A

He brought back Danny Ocean, he made a film star out of Sasha Grey and he shared Che Guevara's incredible story with the world but now cinematic mastermind Steven Soderbergh is killing the planet's population in 'Contagion' and he has brought an ensemble cast along with him for the immensely uncomfortable journey. With promising reviews from the US with some critics placing it on their Top 10 of 2011 lists and Oscar buzz surrounding certain performances, it will be unsurprising if the film is a big hit here in the UK. Well I've now seen it and here's my verdict - but first I need to disinfect my keyboard...

 From seemingly out of nowhere, a horrific and undetectable virus begins to infect innocent civilians across the globe. The CDC (Centre for Disease Control) sends out their best doctors and scientists including Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) to try to discover the origins of the virus and create a vaccine before the globe's population is eradicated. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) seems to be immune to the virus but his priorities lie in protecting his family whilst renegade blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) believes the CDC and the Government are holding back crucial information from the public. As the infection spreads, paths interweave leading towards dramatic consequences. 

 'Contagion' is the horror event film of 2011 even though it does not fall into that genre - Soderbergh's outbreak picture is infectious viewing that seeps into your psyche and makes audiences question their daily routine and certainly their cleanliness. The reason this film is so affecting and so powerful is because of the sheer realism and weight it presents; there is no zombies or no known enemy - this is simply human nature gone haywire and the results are disastrous. Soderbergh's direction is at times pseudo-documentary as unstable camera angles and ruthless imagery hold the audience hostage. The film makes no secret in the untold death and destruction the virus causes and we see multiple people meet their demise throughout. 

 The virus is passed from person to person by touching your face. Winslet's Dr. Mears gives us a quick biology lesson saying we touch our faces on average 3 to 5 times every waking minute and in between that we are touching doorknobs, counters, each other and many other things. It's clear to see why this virus spreads so rapidly - an infected person coughs into their hands before opening a door, another person grabs the same door handle before touching their face, 24/48 hours later and they are both dead - Simple as that.

 The film takes place over the first few months of the breakout so the narrative shifts from multiple locations frequently. We see a man cough, splutter and die on a bus in Hong Kong before flying across to London to see a young lady sweat buckets and gasp for breath in the back of a taxi. The primary storyline is based in the USA but audiences will globe-trot and see the devastation of this unknown disease worldwide. However underneath the virus plot lies a multi-layered and superbly designed feature that's part procedural drama, part psychological thriller and part character study. The film's tone and atmosphere may always stay tense and unnerving but it's story is constantly evolving and the results are sensational.

Still from 'Contagion' (dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
 'Contagion' provides viewers with an authentic portrait of a virus-ridden world - soon any human rights and ethics go out the window and it's 'every man for himself'. Then the masses turn to violence, looting and arson as they parade the desolate and decrepit streets searching for medication. In the process, cars are stolen, homes are invaded and depravity escalates. The Government are desperate to withhold information from the media to avoid mass hysteria whilst the health officials are concerned about a vaccine and how many will die before one is created - time is as much the enemy to all as well as the deadly virus. 

 It's surprising 'Contagion' has been granted a 12A by the BBFC in all honesty - although there is very little blood or gore, the sheer menace and untold threat that surrounds everything and everyone in this film creates a difficult and frightening view which could quite easily warrant a 15 certificate. 

 The film sports a fantastic screenplay from Scott Z. Burns that presents exquisite dialogue exchanges and character developments, a moody and often ambient score that helps to mould the sour atmosphere that consumes the world of the film and fast-paced and pin-pointed editing that races as quick as Soderbergh's mad camera. 

 Some have made slightly negative comments about the individual characters' stories which I think is rather strange. The film is about a malicious and unstoppable virus that's murdering the masses - it doesn't care whether you are a Hollywood movie star or a wheelie-bin cleaner; if you fall into it's path or interact with anyone who has it, you are history. Soderbergh makes everything feel all the more real by leading viewers to believe his all-star cast are just a bunch of regulars facing an impossible threat alongside everyone else. It's brave, honourable and quite frankly brilliant filmmaking. But for those thinking "How many get killed off in the first 5 minutes?" simply do not worry - this is not 'Scream' (1996).

 The Oscar buzz surrounding the movie is certainly fair and not just because of the performances - a nomination for the screenplay, direction and score would be completely justified, but all the acting talent involved here are tremendous, no matter how big or small their role may be. Damon is sensational as Mitch; a desperate father who becomes overprotective and dominant, Winslet is incredible as Dr. Mears who heads the search to discover the truth behind the virus and Fishburne is also excellent as Dr. Cheever - the man many look up to but he may not be as noble as he seems. 

 But the film's brightest stars are Law and Cotillard who control each and every scene they appear in. Law's Alan Krumwiede is a brilliant defined and portrayed character who almost sparks a revolution as he stands up to the CDC and demands 'the truth' although he perhaps isn't the most honest of men, and Cotillard's Dr. Orantes is amazingly established as the brains behind the operation who is sent to Hong Kong to work with scientists about the malevolence of the virus and the primary contamination.  

 Viewers will not feel happiness after 'Contagion' - in fact you won't want to feel anything and will probably have your hands buried in your pockets for the next hour, but what the film will offer you is the most realistic, gripping and emotionally involving screen experience of the year as well as showcase superior talent from some of the globe's finest actors, and incredibly assured direction from a master of his craft. It's completely understandable why this movie will be featuring on many a Top 10 list and it will have a spot on mine too. Now time to stock up on hand sanitizer...

Supremely unsettling, unbearably terrifying and above all else, truly remarkable. 'Contagion' is a knock-out.

By Chris Haydon

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