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A deadly virus. A global epidemic. Thousands of agonising deaths. A star-studded cast dropping like flies. This will teach you to wash your hands.
Fear goes viral when a highly contagious killer disease grips the globe and brings civilized society to a standstill. Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) leads the Centre for Disease control in a desperate scramble to find a vaccine. As the CDC and World Health Organisation attempt to track the disease and prevent it from spreading further, the body count soars and media fuelled hysteria reaches fever pitch as infection spreads at an alarming rate. As panic sets in, fear and paranoia turn the status quo on its head. Order gradually disintegrates and desperate times mean desperate measures for the government and hard choices for those at risk.
How many times a day would you say you touch your face? About three or four, right? Wrong. According to one scary statistic in Steven Soderbergh’s new psych-thriller Contagion, “The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between that we're touching door knobs, water fountains, and each other.” As scary as that thought is, it’s a miracle we aren’t all walking around coughing the Ebola virus into each other’s mocha lattes.
I used to be fairly laid back when it came to germs. I’m used to having the sniffles on a regular basis and I always wash my hands after using the bathroom. ‘You can’t frighten me with all this viral scare-mongering’, I used to say. I’m not going to go OCD with a scrubbing brush and a bottle of antiseptic just to dodge the cold’. I used to say.
My wife tried to warn me. Countless times have I come home and gone straight for my favourite brand of salty peanuts only to be told, ‘Wash your hands! Have you any idea how many germs are on the bus?’ To which I grudgingly obey. Infection was never something I really considered, not seriously anyway. Then I saw Contagion… and everything changed.
In Contagion the virus is contracted and spreads when somewhere in the world “the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat”. Cue a menacing soundtrack from composer Cliff Martinez -- who worked with Soderbergh on the critically acclaimed Traffic (2000) -- to pre-empt the impending doom with an appropriately atmospheric score, as a handshake becomes a cough and a sniffle means a seizure followed by foaming at the mouth and a horrible death.
Soderbergh creates a palpable sense of foreboding with cleverly edited shots of unsuspecting travelers contracting the highly contagious infection over an innocent looking bowl of airport mixed nuts. No time is wasted establishing the global scale of the potential threat as we skip from one cosmopolitan city to another. ‘London, Population: 20 million, San Francisco: 7 million, Chicago: 3 million, Hong Kong: 7 million’. You get the picture.
In a brave act of star-culling to rival that of the master of suspense himself, when Hitchcock murdered Janet Leigh in the shower with a carving knife (“We all go a little mad sometimes!”) in Psycho, Soderbergh keeps us guessing by having all sorts of big names from his star studded ensemble cast bite the dust. I won’t name names and spoil the fun but let’s just say no-one is safe. One particularly graphic scene of autopsy drives home the seriousness of the threat. Even cute little kids aren't safe.
Proving he can multitask, Soderbergh managed to simultaneously entertain and frustrate me. My main problem with the film is the final act. Loose plot ends left to dangle distract from the climactic reveal which is subsequently less impressive and feels unsatisfying as a result. The audience is barely given time to care about Matt Damon & Co. before Soderbergh seems to just forget about them. We’re left wondering what happened to characters we'd just begun to root for. This is always a risk with an ensemble cast and multiple story lines but a risk that paid off with Traffic. Contagion, however, despite being a feverishly thrilling ride, lacks the emotional payload it should deliver.
Where Soderbergh has the upper hand with Contagion is the idea that ‘nothing spreads like fear’. The film's heightened sense of paranoid confusion is compelling throughout and hits us where we live, eat, sleep and work. You'll leave the theatre with a queasy feeling and an urge to wash your hands. Not without its bugs but well worth catching.
Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.
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