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Contagion – Film Review

Contagion - Anna Jacoby-Heron and Matt Damon
Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) © 2011 Warner Bros

Wow, could this movie ever have used a hot zombie injection. Director Steven Soderbergh’s would-be thriller about a worldwide epidemic is tediously flat stuff without roving hordes of the undead around to liven things up.

Scott Z Burns’ screenplay is so timid, trite and tiresome it’s like a public service announcement the government would cook up to placate an anxious public about a new flu strain. Most of the movie is spent globe-hopping between heroically problem-solving medical professionals. Also, the Chinese are evil, and a freelance conspiracy-minded blogger (Jude Law) naturally turns out to be a dishonest and dangerous con man.

The story opens on Day 2 of several high-mortality months. Gwyneth Paltrow is Beth Emhoff, aka Patient Zero, just back from a Hong Kong business trip. She drops dead in record time for an A-list movie star in a major motion picture. Hubby Mitch (Matt Damon) is so stupefied he reacts to the news of her demise by asking the doctor, “Okay, can I go talk to her?”

Marion Cotillard is a World Health Organization doctor who traces the virus to its Chinese source, where she gets a less than enthusiastic reaction. Laurence Fishburne is a Center for Disease Control and Prevention Deputy Director who blabs about the outbreak to his fiancee but asks her to tell no one else, and you just know how well that’s going to work out. Kate Winslet is a doctor dispatched to investigate the threat who gets a little too close to the problem, and Jennifer Ehle is a researcher so gosh-darn dedicated she uses herself as a test subject.

Contagion - Chin Han and Marion Cotillard
Sun Feng (Chin Han) and Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) © 2011 Warner Bros

Minneapolis Mitch, apparently immune to the virus, is the plot’s everyman focal point. He puts his teenage daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) under house arrest with him for months after deciding that quarantining her is the only way to keep her safe. Don’t expect this situation to result in any psychological trauma or emotional breakdowns, however, because the screenplay just can’t be bothered. What the heck do these two do all day to keep from going cabin-fever crazy?

Although the movie is being promoted as if it depicts a dire and paranoid “touch no one, talk to no one” dystopia, there’s never a convincing sense of end-of-the-world hysteria and doom. Sure, there’s a little perfunctory looting, some pharmacy customers become rowdy and a crowd gets huffy when free meals run out at a distribution center. Also, there’s trash on sidewalks. But Mitch never seems particularly worried for his safety, or that of his daughter, even after he notices flashes of gunfire in a nearby house one night. The movie is so determined to be dull that we don’t see Mitch find any bodies, even though he searches his neighbors’ homes the next day. Also, Mitch never has to defend his own home with a rifle he appropriates. And can things really be all that bad in the world if Mitch’s electricity and other utilities are still working months after panic in the streets is supposed to have set in?

The last time director Soderbergh, screenwriter Burns and star Damon got together was to concoct the unwatchable 2009 dud The Informant!. Contagion is an improvement over that fiasco, but that’s like saying the swine flu is better than the Spanish flu.

For a one-minute version of this movie without all the doctors, science and earnestness, stay through the end credits of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and watch snazzy graphics of a virus spreading across the planet. There, you just saved 10 bucks.

[Rating:2 stars]

Contagion has its theatrical release next week on September 9, 2011 but is screened today (September 3, 2011) at the Venice Film Festival. Thanks to Warner Bros for approving the posting of this review now.