Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Contagion (2011)

Image: Warner Bros.

Steven Soderbergh’s reputation is built on constantly flitting between inaccessible art-house and star-studded, big budget blockbusters. Just by looking at the cast you can see that Contagion definitely falls into the latter category, but it’s always tough to predict whether a Soderbergh multiplex movie will actually work.

A virus similar to avian flu starts to spread throughout the world. Scientists race against time to find a vaccine but the virus is spreading faster than they can keep up with it. As fear takes hold, can the world’s governments maintain order and cure the disease?

Part of the appeal of Contagion is seeing Soderbergh take on what’s traditionally a B-movie plot staple. It’s interesting to note how large the influence of 70s horror movies is on Contagion. From the banality of the local government’s bickering over budgets to the masked soldiers disposing of corpses, Cronenberg and Romero loom large over Soderbergh’s epidemic drama. There’s even a hint of John Carpenter thanks to the soundtrack. Perhaps most of all, however, it’s hard to ignore the influence of writers like Michael Crichton and Stephen King, especially during the excellent first half with the international cast of characters quickly realising that the situation is developing far too quickly.

The plot mostly focuses on six characters: Matt Damon’s normal-guy immune widower, Marion Cotillard’s Swiss scientist, Jude Law’s anti-establishment blogger, Kate Winslet’s CDC operative who works for Laurence Fishburne, who in turn places all his hope in Jennifer Ehle’s (The King’s Speech) quick-talking scientist. Add Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars), and Elliott Gould and you’ve got a cast to die for. However, fitting all these actors into a 100 minute movie and giving them enough to work with proves to be a task too great.

While the film excels at showing the (horribly believable) spread of a deadly disease, the wide-reaching script means that none of the characters are developed enough for us to care, and the film relies on the A-listers to connect with the audience. Damon, Winslet, and Fishburne do good work, and Ehle does an excellent job spouting scientific spiel, but Law irritates and Cotillard disappears from the story early on. By the time the second half kicks in and the body count (including, admirably, the name cast) grows, the non-essential storylines become distracting. It feels like several scenes got cut to keep the running time down. Maybe it would have worked better as a mini-series. 

Verdict: Starts very well but peters out before the end. The first half and the star studded cast make it worth a look, if a little disappointing.

3/5

JH

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