Sunday, October 2, 2011

Terrified at the Movies

For someone recovering from pneumonia (and thank you all for your good wishes), the film CONTAGION probably wouldn't be everyone's choice for a first up-from-the-sickbed outing. But I'm glad I went. After a summer of silly movies with over-the-top special-effects heroes and villains, CONTAGION is a genuinely human, genuinely terrifying movie.

An American woman attends a business conference in Hong Kong. [NOTE: SPOILER ALERT] She visits a casino there, flies home, has sex with an old boyfriend during a lay-over in Chicago, then goes on to her family in Minneapolis. Unknowingly she infects everyone along the way. Some of those people fly to other cities. Soon there is a worldwide outbreak of a new disease.

The movie follows several characters' stories, including a French doctor with WHO, researchers with the CDC, Chinese and Americans whose families are affected. The cast includes Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Jude Law. With so many diverse stories playing out, some critics have said that the film is too diffuse; we don't get enough screen time with anyone to deeply invest in them. I think those critics have missed the point. The real star here is the contagion itself, and fighting it is the work not of a superhero but of a world-wide team. There are individual heroics, but the focus stays on the disease.

It's a bad plague, but not as bad as it could be. The kill rate is about 30%: much greater than the flu epidemic of 1918, but much less than, say, Ebola or Marburg. The contagion kills quickly, within a few days. WHO, the CDC, FEMA, the National Guards all fight it with containment, quarantine, and frantic races to understand the virus's nature, to find a cure, to develop a vaccine. Meanwhile, some people panic and some riot and some try to profit financially and some risk their lives to help others. A teenage girl focuses on seeing her boyfriend despite the quarantine. The president is moved underground. Congress tries to carry on work via the Internet. It all feels very real.

That is why I was so riveted by the movie: It seems real. This is the way it could happen. I believed pretty much everything. It's been a long time since I believed pretty much everything that happens in a film.

It's also been a long time since the heroes of a movie are mostly scientists who work for big government agencies. The government is not evil, the corporations are not evil, the plague is not caused by evil terrorists (at the very end we find out how it was caused). Government employees -- flawed human beings but dedicated scientists -- work together to find answers and implement them. When was the last time you saw THAT on screen?

Not an uplifting film, but a very good one. Let's just hope it's not prescient.


Barbara Webb said...

I loved this one too, for all the reasons you said. It felt so real. Not hyped-up-Jerry-Brukheimer-action. No cinematic hysterics. Just a tense, well-paced, exploration of what a bad disease might be like.

My one serious complaint with the movie was the affair they gave to Gwyneth Paltrow's character. I saw no way in which it served the story, and it felt to me the writers went to the default fallback for female characters - they wanted to give her a flaw and the only characterizations we think of for women are related to sex.

If they'd even made her Chicago ex the contagion vector for Chicago, I would have felt better. But we saw her sitting in the airport, spreading her germs around there. So it wasn't like the affair was necessary to set off the disease in Chi-town.

Which is a minor quibble for an otherwise amazingly well-done movie.

Vonda N. McIntyre said...

Science Friday did an interview with the virologist who was a consultant on Contagion -- unusual in that the filmmakers listened to him to the extent of doing expensive retakes when they did something hair-raisingly wrong.

My experience during my year in LA was that when I pointed out some hair-raisingly wrong event in a screenplay, the response would be "Vonda, it's JUST a MOVIE."


Robert Mitchell Evans said...

Nancy: I agree you entirely on this film. I saw it at a drive-in as a double feature with Apollo 18, which was a pretty bad whiplash effect of smart to stupid. LOL
Did you stay through the credits? Buried in the crawl was the notation: It is not a matter of If, but When, be prepared. said...

Agreed to Barbara. Well Done.

GuyStewart said...

I was creeped out more than usual because the school district I work in was the ONLY one named which meant, I DIED! It may have only been in a movie, but I work there. I DIED. (I later found out that the writer was a graduate of the school district I work in...thanks a lot! (For a hair-raising story.)

I'll buy it when it hits my local TARGET -- if there's anyone alive to ring me out...