The original Oceans 11 was a way for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack to have Warner Brothers pay for them to fool around together. It helped that Warner’s knew the public would pay to watch a fantasy (you can rob a Vegas Casino with a spray bottle?) with all those stars in it. It was a middling hit and everyone was happy. Then Steven Soderbergh remade it in 2001. He filled it with actors who could act, created a logical heist plot that played off of the old movie, and filmed it in his cool realistic style. It was a worldwide hit that spawned two successful sequels (at last count).
Now Soderbergh has revamped a whole genre. The disaster flicks of the 1970’s threw a bunch of marquee names and familiar actors into a horrible disaster and let the audience see who survived. The special effects are now horribly dated. You put a piece of Plexiglas in front of a camera filming the Universal Pictures building, flex it back and forth – voila, you have the shaking of an earthquake. The grand master of disasters was Irwin Allen, with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, though by the time he got to killer bees the genre was played out. Soderbergh uses the Oceans 11 template on the genre, filling his movie with good actors rather than just stars, again filming it in his cool realistic style, and creates a nightmare scenario that is all too possible. The result is Contagion, and just like Oceans 11, it’s a triumph of movie-making.
To visit the Contagion website and watch the trailer, click here
The movie begins on Day 2 of the epidemic. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is sitting in a Chicago airport bar talking on her cell to the lover she just left, when her flight back to Minnesota is called. She doesn’t look well. She returns to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and their young son. Within a few days Beth’s illness has worsened and their son is sick too. After going into convulsions, Beth is taken to the hospital where she dies. Returning home, Mitch finds his son has died as well. At the same time, we see a young man in Hong Kong – the town where Beth had been on her business trip – who also is ill. He travels throughout the city until, in a fever-induced fog, he dies in an accident.
In Atlanta, reports of a virulent outbreak in Minnesota and Chicago reach Centers for Disease Control Administrator Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne). He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to investigate. Other reports reach the World Heath Organization in Switzerland of an outbreak in China. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is sent there and, working with the CDC and with local authorities, she comes close to isolating the initial infection. Bodies, though, are piling up.
The film spans the world to look at the story from multiple angles, giving plenty of roles to be filled. That’s like the original disaster films, though none approached this scope. The only one close to its scale is the recent 2012, though that picture qualifies as a disaster quite apart from its story line. To me, it was the nadir of the genre; Contagion is the pinnacle.
Anna Jacoby-Heron plays Jory Emhoff, Mitch’s daughter from a previous marriage. Mitch discovers he’s immune to the disease, but Jory would only have a 50/50 chance to match his immunity. He focuses solely on protecting her from the virus and the breakdown of society. Elliott Gould, an Oceans 11 veteran along with Damon, is Dr. Ian Sussman, a San Francisco-based virologist consulted by the CDC. Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) plays CDC virologist Dr. Ally Hextall who, with the help of Dr. David Eisenberg (comedian Demitri Martin in a straight role) tries to isolate a vaccine, at the risk of her own life. John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) plays Roger, a CDC janitor who learns too much. Representing the political authorities are Brian Cranston (Breaking Bad) as Lyle Haggerty, the head of Homeland Security, and Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars, Just Shoot Me) as Dennis French, an executive branch operative.
One of the compelling subplots deals with how the World Wide Web would affect a world wide epidemic. Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a blogger and self-styled investigative reporter who discovers the outbreak early on in the movie. The movie points out both the value and the dangers of the Internet. (It does seem strange, though appropriate, to be blogging about this facet of the film.)
Soderbergh highlights the threat of the disease in a simple but effective way. Each time the film changes to a new location, he gives the name of the city, and how many million people live in it. The threat is subtle, and so is Soderbergh’s camera work to highlight the threat. When he focuses just a tad longer than expected on a crash bar on a school door – one that has just been used by Damon’s sick son – you know the disease is there, waiting for the next hand to touch it. Later in the movie Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever tells the son of Roger the custodian the story of how shaking hands began – as a sign between early nobility that they were unarmed. But with a virus, you can’t see the weapon on the hand. When Cotillard traces Beth Emhoff’s infection, Soderbergh intersperses surveillance footage with filmed sequences from other angles. The result is compelling. This is a smart film with its dialogue as well. Dr. Cheever is asked in a meeting with Homeland Security what the chances would be that this was a weaponized form of bird flu. “You don’t have the weaponize bird flu,” Cheever replies. “The birds are already doing that.”
In the end, the greatest weakness of Contagion is its scope. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has crafted a truly terrifying movie, but it breaks down when the bodies pile up so fast that you lose track of the deaths. At the end of the movie, you know the disease was devastating, but you’ve no idea how devastating. Part of the problem is that it shows the disease as a death sentence. Everyone we see who gets it might as well be fitted for a body bag. It’s almost as virulent as the Dr. Trips flu in Stephen King’s The Stand. This is in contrast to the dialogue, which separate the cases from the fatalities. The statistics can’t compete with the visuals.
No epidemic wipes out everyone. There would be survivors of the disease. Even with Ebola, some survive. The cost may be high. The Spanish Flu of 1918-19 wiped out more people than died in the four years of the First World War. In the end, the fatalities amounted to 1% of the world population. The Black Death killed somewhere between 350 and 450 million people – roughly 30 to 60% of the population of Europe. But that meant 40 to 70% survived.
It was, though, before the speed of air travel, and in a much less populous world than ours is now. It was also before the Internet, where people can latch onto flawed or deceptive research and cause a percentage of the population to refuse to vaccinate their children against common diseases. If a new Black Death-like virus were to break out, we could be looking at a worldwide death rate of 1 in 3, or even 1 in 2.
I stopped to wash my hands thoroughly when I left the theater.