Thursday, 15 December 2011

Film Review: Contagion

Hollywood has been through just about every permeation of potential causes for man's demise. From asteroids to nuclear war, killer bees to volcanoes, polar shifts to alien invasions, now it would seem that viruses are flavour of the week. Even the current pop-culture fascination with zombies invariably begins with some nasty little germ mutation. And what with recent scares over H1N1, bird flu and SARS serving to whip up a panicked frenzy, it seems fitting then that a film posit 'what if the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat?'. What if the result was some sort of pig-bat virus, transmitted through touch and able to claim your life in a matter of days? Contagion attempts to provide the answer.

When an unknown deadly virus begins knocking off seemingly random people around the globe, authorities race against time to track the source of the contagion and find a cure. Meanwhile a man (Damon) must deal with the sudden deaths of his wife (Paltrow) and son-in-law as society breaks down and an internet conspiracy theorist (Law) blogs myths of a cure which only serves to exacerbate the panic.

This is your typical 'what if' scenario similar in vain to 1980s disaster movie The Day After and global warming/cooling/whatever doomsday effort, The Day After Tomorrow. Like those, Contagion's grounding in reality can be a rather frightening prospect. An unseen killer, easily transmitted, accentuated by director Steven Soderbergh's lingering shots of touched doorknobs and surfaces for a few seconds longer than necessary. We are introduced to cities with their population totals flashed at the bottom of our screen while bodies are piled into massgraves and the death toll rises. And yet, Contagion never gives the impression that this disease is all that deadly. While the film's globe-trotting exploits are supposed to give you a sense of scale and magnitude, we aren't really given any stats as to how many people the virus has claimed. There is a snippet which mentions that, after a year, 2.5million have died in the US, but this represents only 1% of the US population. If we were to scale this out and assume that figures were similar in the rest of the world then it doesn't seem as unbearable as the film suggests. That may sound callous but if you take one of the most deadly natural disasters in human history, the Spanish flu which killed some 10% of the world's population back in 1918, this virus seems relatively small fish in comparison.

Indeed, fears can be further allayed when I read that the virus in Contagion isn't exactly scientifically accurate either. While the disease in the film is highly lethal, infects large amounts of people and has a very short incubation period, the reality is somewhat further removed from such a scenario. In reality an infectious disease must have a relatively long incubation period and less lethality than the film propositions in order for the virus to continue to spread. Consequently tracking the disease, which is a central plot point in Contagion, is much more difficult than the film suggests. As such many facts had to be bent in order for the story to work, and so Contagion's premise perhaps not as frightening as it first suggests.

More frightening though is the societal effects of the virus. As authorities fail to contain the outbreak and food riots ensue, people begin looking to alternative sources for guidance. Cue Jude Law's Alan Krumwiede, a conspiracist blogger claiming the government are in on it all and that the only cure is a homeopathic medicine called 'Forsythia'. Inevitably panic spreads in a fashion which seems more contagious than the virus itself as people loot pharmacies in search of this miraculous placebo. As many of us get our information from the internet these days we often forget that not all of it is vetted and corroborated. The internet is essentially a double-edged sword, both doing wonders for the proliferation of information yet burdened with an equal capacity to transmit dangerous myths and rumour. With regards to Krumwiede he quite evidently has a screw loose but what's more interesting is how the film paints him as the 'bad guy', embodying everything 'unAmerican' from dodgy accent to bad teeth. And yet Krumwiede raises some interesting points about pharmaceutical companies creating crises in order to profit as well as the unforeseen consequences of vaccines such as autism or the swine flu shot which actually killed people back in 1976. Yes he misleads people and hypocritically uses the situation to his advantage in the same vain he accuses big pharma of by becoming a modern day snake-oil salesman, but the ad-hominem portrayal of a paranoid, anorak-wearing crack-pot acts to invalidate some perfectly reasonable questions. The fact that he's Australian could also allude to another infamous Aussie whistle-blower that authorities have had a problem with lately, one Julian Assange.

Perhaps Contagion's biggest problem however is that its all star cast and jumping all over the world doesn't leave much room for showcasing their talent. Nor do you really get the time to build an empathetic relationship with their characters where you probably won't really care which Hollywood superstar snuffs it next. Damon's everyman isn't really afforded the opportunity to capture grief very well as he quarantines himself and his daughter inside their house for the majority of the film while Winslet promises spunk but is sold short just as soon as she sparks interest. Cottilard's WHO (World Health Organisation) epidemiologist meanwhile is given perhaps the most dramatic story arc yet it is one the film shafts right until the end. So much so in fact that it needn't have been even incorporated into the script. Only is the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) head-honcho, played by Laurence Fishburne, given any sort of multi-faceted depth, embodying the same human fallacies of self-interest, stupidity and arrogance as the rest of us. Indeed, it is these three facets alluded to throughout the film which are more scary than any killer-virus could be. Moreover though the briskness with which Contagion shoots over everything, while admittedly serving well to create a fluidity of event, also unfortunately sacrifices character development for something which looks much more like a documentary.

But then, this is the nature of the beast where globe-trotting films are invariably driven more by events than characters. And yet, it still feels like a disappointing waste of talent, even a gimmick to pull in audiences. Everything would have worked exactly the same had its characters been played by just about anyone else. Consequently Contagion is a film without sympathy, as clinical as its scientists who scramble in their lab for a cure. Like the humans involved here it's not perfect, but if you're into your apocalyptic scenarios you might want to give this a go. Preferably with a face mask.