|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Wednesday, 19 October 2011 12:11|
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Gwyneth Paltrow's head has long been recognised as a cultural symbol for death. Here, it returns as a harbinger for worldwide infection, frothing wildly at the mouth and convulsing on the living room floor. Oh yes, nothing can spread fear and death like Gwyneth Paltrow's head. And Steven Soderbergh knows it, using it as the epicentre for this thrilling global tale of contamination.
At first, husband Mitch (the increasingly versatile Matt Damon) doesn't know what to do. What caused her to go all weird and dead? The doctors don't know. As Mitch rushes to make sure his daughter is unaffected, people start dropping like flies all over the place.
Enter Lawrence Fishburne and Kate Winslet. They place Science People, who talk in scientific words and use science to cure the problem scientifically. "Has someone weaponised bird flu?" asks a clueless American, who doesn't speak science. "We don't need to weaponise bird flu. The birds have already done that," replies Fishburne, scientifically confirming his own awesomeness at science.
As the infection becomes international, biological babble randomly emanates from people's voice boxes: "I can see some structures on the surface that look like glycoproteins, but there's nothing morphologically pathognomonic," says one science person who isn't Lawrence Fishburne. You can tell she's going to die by the end of the first act.
And that's the main source of fun for Soderbergh's film: guessing who dies next. With every new location, text flashes up. London. Population 8.6 million. That's a lot of people about to keel over. Before that they'll cough up blood, twitch on the floor and stare sadly into the distance - spot the stiff has never been so much fun.
Naturally, a lot of characters are mere germ fodder, but Damon and Marion Cotillard in particular bring enough emotion to make you care about their bacterial demise, while Jude Law's stereotypical blogger gives us an antagonist to actively hate other than nameless microorganisms. The script is tight, too. After an initially grim autopsy, Soderbergh avoids gore and cheap shock tactics, simply ramping up the pace to generate tension. Never before has an email titled "updated phylogenetic analysis" seemed so exciting.
On a molecular level, Contagion is a very basic, formulaic film, but it taps into that alienation and panic that seizes a nation whenever a virus breaks out. And that really is quite terrifying. You'll leave the cinema not wanting to breathe on anyone around you. Days after, when someone sneezes on the train, you'll have instant flashbacks to Gwyneth Paltrow's head - and not a lot of films have side effects like that.
You'll enjoy Contagion so much you'll have to wash your hands afterwards.
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