Saturday, September 10, 2011

Some would say Steven Soderbergh’s latest directorial offering is his version of the disaster films of the 1970s. That may be partly true, albeit an updated version for the new millennium. In this 2011 take on the plague-pic, it’s more like CSI: Contagion Source Investigation.

There’s a decidedly dispassionate air to the whole affair. Sure, there are moments of intensity by the players, most notably by Matt Damon, not least of which in the oft parodied “WHAT HAPPENED TO HER?” scene at the hospital. Having been given the most fleshed out and developed character of the movie, he becomes more understood by the audience, and his potential losses and traumas are most effective in pulling in and connecting with viewers. Marion Cotillard also shows the many dimensions of her character, from compassion to terror, in ways that make her stand out from the rest of those we follow through the film.

In this movie, basically the plague begins, the plague spreads, panic ensues, and the superheroes of the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization scramble to save the planet. Soderbergh creates the tension, builds the panic, and overall, shoots the story, with the aesthetic of a foreign film: the visual coldness, the laser sharp focus in the narrative, and the wide shots he often uses seem more Swedish, like Tomas Alfredson’s of “Let the Right One In.”

The sheer number of A-list actors without much exposition or character development, just trying to keep their heads and stay alive as all hell breaks loose, might just be a testament to how many actors want to work with him before he goes on his much discussed “hiatus.” It is the most fun and exciting part of this germ-actioner.

An international cast catches the fever, as it were, some playing martyrs, heroes, villains, some rescuers of the world. Some play a mixture of it all. Be warned that no one is safe from unexpected demise, which makes the movie all the more a parallel of the bug itself. Hollywood hierarchy won’t save them in this movie, and wouldn’t save them in a pandemic either. Look for Jude Law to harken back to some of the better moments of villainy in his career. You find yourself wanting to see him shiver and hear him start coughing.

With most of Soderburgh’s movies, those who go love them or hate them. Here once again, you’ll either appreciate his take on the disaster movie genre, or you won’t. It plays so much more like a police procedural where the perp is an indiscriminate germ, not a human criminal with human motives, than a melodrama where the disaster is secondary to the character arcs.

If you’re looking for lots of prayers, crying, and heartfelt last moments, you won’t find them here. The whole story is centered on the germ. The CDC and WHO are the detectives, asking, “Where did it come from, and how do we bring it DOWN?” I appreciated the stripped down bluntness of it, as it is apt to allow us all the more to imagine ourselves in the chaotic world he shows us.

In any case, this movie will certainly make you appreciate how much more ordered society is at the moment, without a worldwide plague. It will also make you start thinking about what you’d do when and if there is one.

At the very least, you’ll have to have a plan. And some water, a shotgun, and lots and lots of Purell.

Other germtastic films to consider:
The Satan Bug
The Omega Man
The Andromeda Strain
The Stand
I Am Legend
28 Days Later
12 Monkeys
The Seventh Seal
Children of Men