‘Contagion’: Catch it

September 8, 2011

The first hour of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” is so tense that you can almost forgive the second half for getting bogged down.

In a lot of ways, Soderbergh’s film is like a big breaking disaster story in the age of the 24-hour news cycle: There are lots of thrills, twists and shocks early on. But though the flow of actual news eventually slows to a trickle, the coverage itself remains intense and you find yourself forced to wade through more and more filler to get to the real nuggets of information.

Soderbergh has set himself no smaller a task than capturing the fear, panic and courage that would undoubtedly be part of a worldwide pandemic of a deadly new flu virus. Specifically, this microscopic killer spreads on contact and, after causing bouts of fluish coughing and sniffles, goes straight to killer convulsions, all in about 48 hours.

Patient Zero, as it were, is a Minneapolis businesswoman, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s first seen in Chicago, between planes after a business trip to Hong Kong. She’s already got the cough but she shrugs it off to hubby Matt Damon when she gets home as jet lag.

Which is fine until she drops her morning coffee and flops to the floor, shaking uncontrollably and foaming at the mouth. An hour after she arrives at the ER, the doctor is telling the dumfounded Damon that she’s dead.

Soderbergh teases us with bits and pieces of the lives of several other Hong Kong residents, who also come down with this virus and go through the same quick demise. Then he turns his focus to a top scientist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (Laurence Fishburne), who begins to see a pattern as reports of more cases flood in from around the world.

Soderbergh continues to divide his focus. The first half of the film deals with the increasing sense of unrest that news of the growing epidemic brings, with the flames fanned by conspiracy-theorist bloggers like Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). The other part of the film focuses on the race against time by Fishburne and his colleagues to, first, identify the virus and, then, develop a cure. Easier said than done – plus it’s a job made more complicated by, again, Internet hysteria and misinformation, as well as both commercial and liability concerns.

Soderbergh, however, loses the thread after the first hour. Instead of a straight medical detective story, he decides to focus on a few characters and their reactions to the world around them. That worked in “Traffic,” for which Soderbergh won an Oscar. But Scott Burns’ script mostly makes them pawns in the larger story, figures on a chessboard to be moved around as the story dictates.

Yes, arguably, a movie about scientists strip-mining genetic material from viruses might be dull stuff. But the scenes of societal breakdown – food riots, melees over a homeopathic cure made from forsythia – seem like outtakes from the latest zombie movie. Looters, home-invaders and the like seem too generic for Soderbergh to be focusing on.

And some of the script’s strands just don’t go anywhere. In particular, there’s one involving a World Health Organization official, played by Marion Cotillard, on site in Hong Kong, who winds up as a hostage, a pawn between her organization and a group of survivors from a hard-hit Chinese village.

The large cast is strong and effective. The score, by Cliff Martinez, seems like a cross between the pulse-pounding electronics of Tangerine Dream’s “Thief” score and the dissonant, jazzy feel of Bernard Hermann’s score for “Taxi Driver.”

Still, “Contagion” does hit you where you live. As I walked out of “Contagion,” I found myself overly aware of how often my hands touch my face, all the surfaces I touch in the course of a day in Manhattan – and all the people around me coughing in the theater and on the subway. See this movie – and I guarantee your first stop afterward will be to stock up on Purell.

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