‘Contagion’ is Icky but Fun

‘Contagion’ is Icky but Fun September 9, 2011

Do you have your plan for When It All Goes Down? Whatever the scenario – nuclear holocaust, zombie attack, Russian invasion as in “Red Dawn” – there’s a group of us that have it figured out. Forage for food. Rustle up some horses when the gas runs out. Find ammo. Learn to farm. Above all, survive.

We’ve got a thing for the apocalypse.

This is why the medical worst-case scenario movie “Contagion,” opening September 9, is so fun yet creepy to watch. When a flu pandemic takes a large chunk of the world’s population, only the smart survive.

Mitch (Matt Damon) welcomes his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) home from a trip to Hong Kong only to send her to bed with a bad cough. Seizures and death follow with dizzying speed. Mitch, luckily immune, has a front row seat to a flu outbreak that spreads across the world.

As cases pile up, scientists spring into action, including Laurence Fishburne as a Centers for Disease Control bigwig, Kate Winslet as a CDC field researcher, and Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization operative. They fight to produce a vaccine while blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) spreads disinformation and distrust through his increasingly popular website. With a high death rate and easy transmission, the flu holds humanity captive until it can produce a vaccine.

The resulting quarantines, riots, kidnappings, and looting do not scare Mitch as much as the enemy he cannot see: the germs he fears will take his daughter from him.

Besides the dark fun of watching Paltrow twitching in death throes, the movie steers clear of usual Hollywood gimmicks. The virus merely kills instead of creating angry zombies or crabby vampires. No one takes out a bad guy with a heat seeking missile or calms a writhing crowd with an inspiring speech. Instead, the movie is taut and smart with excellent acting from the ensemble cast. Scientists doggedly pursue the job for which they were trained, sometimes laying down their own lives in the process.  At times, government, media, and the private sector work together. In other moments, red tape or mutual mistrust block their effectiveness.

Rated PG-13, the movie has a few gruesome moments, some light language, and a storyline involving adultery. With several storylines, the action is occasionally confusing and a few stories are dropped  rather than resolved.

The biggest issue for viewers, however, will be the creepiness factor. A common cough or trivial sneeze takes on sinister connotations. The most common of human interactions become potentially lethal: A coffee cup touched by a waiter, a coin passed from one hand to another, the retrieval of a dropped wallet for a stranger in the airport. Even the handshake, a sign of good-will and friendship, can kill.

It’s a movie that makes you want to wash your hands.

Scariest of all, nothing in the movie is hyperbole. It plays like a brochure from the  Department of Health and Human Services come to life. We know the potential for an emerging virus to kill millions worldwide, as the swine flu did in 1918. We know a cure or vaccine would take months, not weeks. Government and the private sector already predict the types of human behavior such a virus would create, a civilization-rocking blend of opportunism, panic, and quiet heroism.

The only thing we do not know is how we, as individuals, would react. Would we protect family, sacrifice for the greater good, or succumb to fear and behave badly? This tension makes apocalyptic movies fun. We all like to think we would be calm Mitch and not part of a frantic horde looting the supermarket, assuming, that is, if we survive the flu at all.


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