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“Cover Your Cough”

Film Review: “Contagion” (2011)

Grade: B (RENT IT)

“BLOGGING ISN’T WRITING. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”  This from Dr. Ian Sussman (played by Elliott Gould), an epidemiologist scrambling to find a vaccine for the pernicious pandemic known as MEV-1 in the new thriller, “Contagion.”

The blogosphere will certainly admire the fact that the object of Sussman’s invective – a San Francisco blogger named Alan (Jude Law) – is one of the lucky few completely immune to the plague.  Then again, Alan is a sleaze who capitalizes on the crisis by exploiting his readers’ panic  (Too bad I’d need a global epidemic to gain that kind of readership!)  In a Dickensian stroke, Alan’s last name is Krumwiede (pronounced “Crumb-Weedy”) and he’s as slimy as the infection himself.

Before Krumwiede comes on the scene, however, society as we know it quickly unravels after business exec Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from Hong Kong to her home in Minneapolis.  Husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is devastated when she and son Clark (Griffin Kane) quickly succumb to an illness as inexplicable as it is fatal.  It’s a cool and crestfallen performance from Damon, shot in the oceanic blues favored by director Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich,” “Oceans 11”).  Watch as his reaction hardens from disbelief to fury as an emergency room doc tells him both his wife and six-year-old son are dead.  The pathogen in “Contagion” doesn’t just infect; it ravages.  With its rapid incubation phase, and 2.5 million dead in just 26 days, MEV-1 makes SARS look like the sniffles.

To the rescue is a team of experts including Kate Winslet (as Dr. Erin Mears of the CDC), Laurence Fishburne (as Ellis Cheever), and the marvelous Marion Cotillard (as Leonora Orantes of the World Health Organization).  One of the numerous subplots involves Leonora’s abduction at the hands of an Asian family man who holds her hostage until his villagers are given the cure.  After a no-nonsense Winslet is shown an empty stadium for treating the sick, she replies: “Good.  Now give me three more just like it.”

Where “Contagion” succeeds in terms of pacing – composer Cliff Martinez provides an electronic score of blips and bleeps, which sounds like call-waiting on Mars – the film never transcends a purely base and biologic level.  The greatest explorations of contagion on page aren’t as modern as you might think.  Mary Shelley’s The Last Man may have been set in the future, but it was published back in 1826 while La Peste (or The Plague) of Albert Camus followed the Second World War in 1947.  What those two novels share is the alertness to contagion as something more than simple transmission.  Yes, a germy handshake can be a weapon, but it’s also a tie that binds.

However slick and satisfying, “Contagion” is more interested in building (then swiftly dissembling) the puzzle-like structure of a medical mystery than it is in the plague as some kind of meaningful metaphor for interconnectivity and a world flattened by travel and globalization.  “Contagion” will make you afraid, but it won’t make you think, and stripped of the idea that illness is always a metaphor, it metastasizes into some soulless installment of “Final Destination” where you end up waiting on the next character to die.