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‘Contagion’ immune to what made ‘Traffic’ so great

Jude Law in Contagion

I guess if you really want to scare the Bejesus out of audiences, releasing a movie about a mysterious, end-of-the-world viral pandemic on the weekend of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is one sure-fire way.

Unlike traditional horror movies that revolve around supernatural evil (The Exorcist) or angry psychopaths (Friday the 13th) or science fiction (28 Days Later),Contagion earns its horror by telling a story as close to possible as Traffic or The Hurt Locker did and then lets the underlying nervous terror wrought by the weekend amplify the fear. It’s a cynical, manipulative and exploitative move, and I’m not sure how commercially successful such a movie can be.

However, if you have Steven Soderbergh directing Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne, you can probably get funding for a movie about alfalfa farmers; you can get a lot of funding if you say your movie is Outbreak crossed with Traffic. It would help, of course, if the movie was as good as Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s problematic masterpiece. Alas, it’s not.

But Traffic is Contagion’s model. As in the 2000 film – which attempted to show the entirety of the drug trade, from addicts to policy makers, from dealers to cops – Contagion is a carefully controlled series of interlocking storylines. This time, Soderbergh is attempting to tell the expansive story of the emergence of a particularly deadly and contagious virus that is going to kill tens of millions of people.

The key plotlines follow the family of the first case, a blogger intent on exposing a worldwide conspiracy, and several doctors and epidemiologists working to understand, control and stop the outbreak.

Traffic was perhaps too schematic, with colors coding different sides to the story; a corrupt Mexico was famously a brownish yellow and the drugged out ghetto of Cincinnati had a blue hue. Contagion isn’t as uncomfortably symbolic, and it is both more sprawling and less ambitious: The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is the base for laconic Laurence Fishburne’s underwhelming political intrigue, San Francisco is home to an intensely annoyed Jude Law and his histrionic proclamations and Hong Kong is where blunted Marion Cotillard goes to trace the origins of the outbreak.

The best drama happens in Minneapolis, where Gwyneth Paltrow, the film’s Patient Zero, brings the virus and quickly dies. Fishburne sends a nervous and dogged Kate Winslet to control the city’s epidemic, while Paltrow’s husband, played by Matt Damon, tries to prevent his teenage daughter from becoming one of the virus’s victims.

These are all plotlines you would expect from a simple docudrama about a natural disaster. But what we learned from AIDS, SARS, H1N1 and recent cholera outbreaks is that heroic doctors and brave victims are the easiest things to discuss, but that those stories hide the more difficult, and richer, tales of how society deals with disease. Soderbergh and screenwriters Scott Z. Burns elide the racism, classism and dangerous misunderstanding of biology that always accompany epidemics. The juicy moral problems of access to vaccines and the dissemination of misinformation are there but are underwritten and under-dramatized. All of the drama comes from Matt Damon’s protectiveness and Jude Law’s screeches.

Ryan Gosling in Drive

While Traffic was a great drama that dealt with a major social issue and made a powerful political statement, Contagion uses a possible future catastrophe as fodder for a neutered zombie thriller.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

also playing


Ryan Gosling is a having a rather good year. After stealing Crazy, Stupid, Love from Steve Carell this summer and before he stars in George Clooney’s Oscar-bait Ides of March, Gosling is the stoic antihero of Drive, an intensely sexy, astonishingly violent and ultimately gripping homage of 1980s LA Noirs films like American Gigolo, Dirty Hairy, and Blade Runner.

Gosling plays an unnamed mechanic and stunt driver who moonlights as the driver of get-away cars. We know little about him other than he’s a great driver and doesn’t say much. But after he falls in love with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and tries to help her ex-con husband pay back a debt, cracks in his controlled personality appear.

It would have been better if writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn had stuck with honoring iconic 80s directors like Paul Schrader and Ridley Scott, because when he goes Tarantino, the blood is too much. When I saw it, eight people walked out.

The marketing of the film is a bit of a bait-and-switch. Gosling brings in women, but this movie will only delight boys who cheer when someone’s head is stomped in gazpacho.

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Posted by on Sep 15, 2011. Filed under Movie Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “‘Contagion’ immune to what made ‘Traffic’ so great”

  1. […] Contagion: I guess if you really want to scare the Bejesus out of audiences, releasing a movie about a mysterious, end-of-the-world viral pandemic on the weekend of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is one sure-fire way. […]

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