Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Movie Review: Contagion

Audiences test positive for "Contagion"

By Blake Deppe
People's World
September 20 2011

Outside of zombie fiction, viral outbreaks are a theme rarely explored in film, particularly in a non-horror context. "Contagion" changed that, and director Roland Emmerich ought to take a few steps back - because this is the precursor to the next generation of disaster films.

A germaphobe's worst nightmare, "Contagion" tells the story of an epidemic spreading worldwide, as organizations rush to come up with a vaccine. Not so much CGI and action, this is more of a drama-thriller that rethinks the 'disaster film' approach.

Apocalyptic diseases aside, the film also hit home for any number of people who may share a vital dilemma with the characters onscreen: having to work while ill with no paid sick leave. This was clearly a point that the filmmakers wanted to address. The fictional disease was based upon the real-life swine flu outbreak, which, in reality, resulted in 7 million Americans catching the flu from coworkers, partially because many were refused paid sick days, according to the AFL-CIO blog.

And then came the jabs at big corporations, and the Center for Disease Control. Not quite your one-dimensional "Resident Evil," this film instead opted for a feeling of heightened realism, examining the likely governmental and scientific responses to a pandemic. Loss of social order is predictable, and was of course included. But the film really shined when it showed how big corporations were itching to capitalize on a disease of great magnitude, determining how much money they could squeeze from the idea of a vaccine, with no regard for human life.

A third underlying progressive element that Contagion had to offer was the subtle championing of female scientists, which Hollywood films are rapidly beginning to recognize.

The movie, however, was not without its moments of pretension, including snarky stabs at modern young writers ("blogging isn't journalism, it's graffiti with punctuation"). There were also lackluster moments, where plot points regarding characters played out in a shoddy fashion - for instance, the storyline regarding the wife of Fishburne's character, which essentially went nowhere.

And yet, there was a craftsmanship that I appreciated in the way that these storylines were executed. For one, it didn't take the clich├ęd route of intertwining the characters' respective storylines toward the film's climax. Instead, each actor had his or her own separate storyline, each connected to the greater plot at hand.

Indeed, "Contagion" violated modern film convention again and again, starting with the death of a character played by an A-List actor with little to no pretense. You've got to admire that kind of boldness in storytelling.

The tone of the film was a 50/50 experience. On one hand, the low-key, subtle approach taken had quite a charm, highlighting not only a working-class performance by Matt Damon that unexpectedly gripped the viewer's emotion, but quite a convincing performance by Jude Law, who played a charlatan trying to offer a supposed "cure" to the disease to his loyal fans (at which point, unfortunately, the film beat up on independent bloggers and vloggers).

However, one might feel that in certain instances, the film takes itself too seriously, coming off more like a socially correct procedural drama, rather than investing in the development of drawing emotional connections between audience and character (save for a few near-perfect scenes with Matt Damon's character).

That being said, I highly recommend at least one viewing of "Contagion," as no matter what opinion you walk away with, it will be at least partially, if not entirely, positive. Shortcomings aside, the great aspects of the movie outweigh the negatives, and the unique approach and plot set "Contagion" apart from other films, ultimately making it highly memorable.

Some may appreciate the slower pacing of the film, as it pushes the solid plot and captivating acting (the meat and potatoes of this movie) to the forefront. "Contagion" delivers the goods to the viewer while methodically, purposefully trudging onward, all the while presenting powerful scenes and dialogue.

"Contagion," is a moving tale of an epidemic, seen through the eyes of a pragmatist. At the very least, it's nothing to sneeze at.

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