“Contagion” daring, clinical look at societal meltdown

Matt Damon trying to escape newly-quarantined Minnesota in "Contagion".

In my time as amateur film-critic/connoisseur, I have to use the bathroom really quite often. This seems a really bizarre place to start a movie review, but then, do you really expect anything too traditional from my end? I say this not to shock or elicit a giggle, but because I had to go really freaking bad during the entirety of Steven Soderbergh’s 105-minute disaster epic “Contagion”. And you know what? I sat there the entire time, not really caring one way or another whether I was in fairly intense abdominal pain. So gripping is his vision of society’s meltdown, I felt to miss a frame would be a disservice. You tell me the last movie that pinned you to your seat like that.

“Contagion” is helmed by the man I believe to be American cinema’s most exciting filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh. Over the years the man’s cranked out star-studded extravaganzas, documentaries, five-hour epics, explorations of eroticism, Julia Roberts vehicles, and, I kid you not, an experimental drama with porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role.

The fact that his quality can be inconsistent misses the point. The man will do anything and everything, putting a distinctive stamp on anything he touches. With “Contagion” Soderbergh adds another notch to his belt: master of terror. Yeah, “Contagion” is the most terrifying movie of the year and pulls this off without so much as a jump-scare.

Watching people chased with knifes and chainsaws can be scary, but considering that most level-headed individuals have not had such an experience, there’s a degree of distance to the proceedings. What if something so simple as a touch or a cough could have you contract a virus, putting you and anyone you contact six feet under? And furthermore, what happens when it spreads all over the world until there isn’t any more room six feet under?

These are only some of the questions “Contagion” answers, with a very deliberate, realistic style courtesy of “Bourne Ultimatum” scribe Scott Burns. Burns extensively researched his material for the film, even working with the CDC to create an authentic virus. Although occasionally at the expense of organically developed dialogue, authenticity pays off handsomely, never calling to attention its status as a multimillion-dollar blockbuster with an Oscar winner in almost every frame.

Among them are Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould, John Hawkes, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. (Because what’s a tentpole blockbuster without a famed neurosurgeon playing himself?) Damon aside, who sinks himself into the role of a pudgy, unassuming newly-single father, none of them carry particularly deep, memorable roles, but then again, such is not the point. They are essentially inserts for the audience to hook their emotions in, and with their characters including bloggers, specialists, doctors and janitors, I’m sure at least one will do the trick.

We are intended to care for their plight, but Soderbergh always reminds of the grander scale of things — he’s not afraid to kill off Gwyneth Paltrow in the first ten minutes of the film, and he’s not really afraid to remind us that it doesn’t matter too much, either. Why mourn the passing of one when billions more tiptoe death’s door? And why not throw boatloads of praise onto a studio-backed film that will so fearlessly pose such a question? A-

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