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By Brian Lafferty


September 9, 2011 (San Diego) – Every now and then a movie comes along that reminds us of the danger that lurks on the surfaces we touch and the air we breathe. I’m talking about one of cinema’s most potent types of villains: the deadly virus. Filmmakers as diverse as Elia Kazan (Panic in the Streets), Robert Wise (The Andromeda Strain), Wolfgang Petersen (Outbreak), and Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) have touched on it.


Joining them now is Steven Soderbergh with Contagion, a cautionary tale about a pandemic that sweeps the world, killing off tens of millions of people. The ensemble cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow as one of the first victims; Matt Damon as her husband-turned-widower; Kate Winslet as an agent for the Centers for Disease Control; Marion Cotillard as a doctor held captive in Hong Kong; and Jude Law as a conspiracy theorist blogger who only exacerbates the situation while proudly touting his twelve million unique visitors to his blog.


Contagion works better as a drama and mystery than as a thriller. The film dispenses with hyperbole and urgency like that seen in Outbreak and goes with realism and restraint instead. Instead of immersing the film with horror and terror – like in the apocalyptic 28 Days Later – Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, and the actors take a business as usual approach to the material.


The movie isn’t without its chilling moments, though. What would you do when you see your next-door neighbors being shot to death by burglars? Normally you call 911. But what if 911 is so overloaded due to the pandemic that you can’t be immediately connected with a dispatcher?


Soderbergh stages this scene Rear Window style. Matt Damon’s character sees from his window the bright flashes indicative of gunfire. He witnesses several guys run out of the house. They might be headed to his house. The camera distance and lack of information gave me the shivers. If a pandemic were to hit us, this situation could very well happen. It’s scary.


But the best word to describe the movie’s tone is “intelligent.” By intelligent, I don’t mean the film is pretentious or a know-it-all. The intelligence lies inside the dialogue and the smart characters that deliver it. It’s seen through the unobtrusive camera work and pacing, which runs neither fast nor slow. It’s threaded into the subtext, which is simultaneously cautionary and educative.


Steven Soderbergh is one of a number of filmmakers who has embraced digital filmmaking, a method pioneered by George Lucas. Many directors like Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn) find it convenient and will never go back to shooting on film. Others have vowed to shoot on film.


I had mixed feelings about Soderbergh’s choice to shoot digitally. The colors envelop the actors to the point where they’re almost an unwelcome addition to the cast. But at least the flipside is that the wide variety of colors – sometimes locations appear color-coded – prevent any visual monotony that could have generated from Soderbergh’s stationary camera. Every texture, color, and line is at maximum crispness. But then it’s so crisp, smooth, and sleek that at times it doesn’t look like a real film but a motion picture created in another universe.


I’ve read somewhere that Soderbergh intended to accurately depict what would really happen if a pandemic hit. Contagion’s thrills aren't generated very often in the theater. But with the media playing the part of Klaatu warning us of the threat of a bird flu pandemic, the chills run down your spine long after you leave the theater.


Contagion is now playing in local theaters.


A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Director: Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns. Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh. Original Music: Cliff Martinez. Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13.


Brian Lafferty can be reached at brian@eastcountymagazine.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.


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