I have a weak spot for end of the world stories, starting with an old favorite, ‘The Day of the Triffids’, and traveling through even droll films like ‘The Happening. Pandemics are particularly interesting because viruses and diseases do seem to act as alien invaders with malevolent intent, evolving at high speed to sidestep our best defense tactics and technology. Don’t believe me? Read up on antibiotic-resistent strains of viruses that now find a comfortable home in hospitals. In the pandemic vein, I still hold ‘The Andromeda Strain’ as one of the best (not the stupid remake, the original 1971 movie), and thought that the recent film ‘Outbreak’ was good too.
Enter ‘Contagion’. Filmed in a quasi-documentary style (a la ‘District 9’), it’s an oddly detached unemotional but still quite alarming film about a variant of H1N1 that spreads throughout the world and kills millions of people. The story revolves around the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization trying to get a handle on the situation, along with the people contracting the bug and the crackpot trying to convince the world that it’s a plot and that there are alternative health paths that can cure you if you do get ill.
The film starts with international traveler Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from a stint in Hong Kong to Minneapolis, feeling poorly. “Jet lag” she assures her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), then dies quickly and unpleasantly. She’s “patient zero” and the race is on to contain the outbreak and to figure out what it is and how to cure it and inoculate against it. Heading the fight is Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the CDC, and his earnest field agent Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), even as the disease rapidly spreads to Chicago, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Suspecting it’s all a plot by the drug companies is crackpot Alan Krumweide (Jude Law), who might just be right. The military have their own theory too: “Could this be a weaponized bird flu?” “The birds have already weaponized it”.
In an all-too-brief cameo, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) violates research protocols to break down and try to synthesize the disease. Why he’s not more pivotal to the film is one of its mysteries.
‘Contagion’ is exciting in a very cerebral way. For a movie billed as an action thriller, it’s much more of a medical mystery with a few exciting scenes thrown in, and even those felt subdued. Still, I really like the genre, I liked the narrative approach of bouncing back and forth between time periods and cities, and I particularly appreciated the last two minutes of the film. ‘nuf said on that. I recommend it!