Title: Contagion

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh

Written By: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne

Screened at: NYC

Opens: September 9, 2011

“This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.” So states T.S. Eliot in “The Hollow Man,” demonstrating that Mr. Eliot was not only a gifted writer but a fortune teller as well, predicting back in 1925 that our world will end just about now. The villain is not Iran or North Korea, not Venezuela or the Taliban, not Al Queda but…wait for director Steven Soderbergh reveals all in the final minute of his new disaster movie “Contagion.” We’re all fascinated by stories of the end of our planet, so long as the culmination of life is on the page of a book or an e-reader or the movie screen. First there was Noah’s Ark, then “Armageddon,” now “Contagion.” The trouble is that while there’s something almost comedic about how Noah’s animals lined up, two by two, always a male and a female however unhip that appears today, “Contagion” is without humor. While Michael Bay’s “Armaggedon” could center on a single asteroid the size of Texas heading for Earth, the source of obvious tension as to where it would land, “Contagion,” which takes place around the world and has Peter Andrews’s camera zipping around everywhere from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Minneapolis, is too diffuse to carry much tautness. There you have it: a film without humor, without tension, but with an all-star cast that the studio hopes will draw in the crowds.

As Soderbergh imitates the six o’clock news, largely foreign but mostly home grown here in the U.S., we watch how a virus spreads from one person-from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow of all people-to twelve million. Paltrow’s character, Beth Emhoff, is married to Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), but finds herself in Hong Kong sans her husband, having a good time after hearing from a fellow with whom she spent a night at a hotel. But adultery has its punishments: Beth is the first to die, breaking out in a cold sweat, soon winding up examined in a autopsy which spares us in the audience the closeup of her brain but gives us enough of a hint of gore by showing the surgeon peeling back the top of her head. That’s just day 2 of the outbreak: Scott Z. Burns’s script saves day 1 for the final minute.

“Contagion” plays not like a solid narrative, but then not all movies need to use that format. “Traffic” did quite well scurrying about, for example. But “Contagion” comes across throughout like a news broadcast, with all the news from all parts of the world just about the same. A few characters propel the story forward. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is the most rock-steady individual, spewing alarm by phone and behind lecterns as number one man at the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard-whom I expect to burst forth with “La vie en rose) serves this time as World Health Organization bigwig, kidnapped for a ransom of vaccine. Elliott Gould furthers his career as one of many scientists groping for a cure, while Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears pushes for a quarantine. Strangest of all, Jude Law operates as freelance journalist Alan Krumwiede, telling us not to believe in what the government is propagating while trying to enrich himself with a fake homeopathic cure for the disease called forsythia.

The obligatory riots break out when crowds hear that the vaccine is available but is being given to government favorites. Looting and murder takes place with the breakdown of society. Ultimately “Contagion” is flawed by its absence of edge-of-seat-disaster tension, its major plus being that the movie is not shown in 3-D.

Rated PG-13. 105 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Story – C

Acting – B

Technical – C-

Overall – C


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