Movie #49: Contagion

Contagion was not an easy movie to watch (and probably the scariest of my summer 50). Director Steven Soderbergh once again uses the technique he mastered in Traffic, the sober series of interconnected stories featuring a huge ensemble cast, to tell the larger tale of a global viral outbreak. While it’s a bit of a cliche to say that a film about disease was scarier than a horror movie, I have not looked at a handshake, a sneeze, or any intake of food the same way since. It all starts out with Gwyneth Paltrow returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and falling ill. Cut to several similar victims around the world. Pretty soon, her husband Matt Damon is watching as she and his stepson have died before he even had a chance to register what’s going on. Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization agents, include Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard (yes, they care enough to recruit only the most attractive experts — and then there’s Laurence Fishburne as the CDC boss), try to manage and contain the outbreak. Another story line follows Jude Law as an angry blogger trying to make a journalistic buck from breaking news about the developing pandemic. He’s only one of the many characters who represent the more selfish actions of people as the situation worsens day after day. Before long people are scared to go out, scared of each other, scared of the riots, looting, even kidnapping, murder, and all kinds of mayhem that follows. This movie is fictional but it feels very real and that’s part of what makes it so intense. Everything that happens seems entirely possible, probably even likely, and that makes it terrifying. In any case, I don’t know whether I’d consider this a “good” movie. It makes you think about health, disaster, humanity, society, and for that it’s very good. I think this was probably the most thought-provoking of all the movies I watched on my list. I like wondering to myself how society should handle a crisis of this kind. I find myself curious what kind of survival instincts (if any) I possess. Compared to any of the post-apocalyptic stories I’ve watched over the years, this is more intriguing because it’s not about after, but rather what happens during the worst of the disaster. All that being said, it’s a hard movie to enjoy. I found myself eagerly waiting for that moment when the cure would be found, and people could put on their civilized society again. I didn’t want the characters that we’d gotten to know (though most of them only very briefly and shallowly) to be harmed (though I warn you, not everyone makes it). At the end, there is a sentimental but moving scene where Matt Damon finds photos of Gwyneth Paltrow in Hong Kong, enjoying that meal that most likely led to her death and the death of millions. It’s a wonderfully subtle scene that combines the profoundly bitter with the gently sweet. That’s what makes Soderbergh’s style so good. I appreciate that he can make it feel like I’m watching stark, documentary-style reality, but also intimate, emotional drama. However, I still get jumpy every time I feel an itch in my throat. Thanks for that too, Steven! (4 out of 5)

Only 1 more, baby!

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