Thursday, November 10, 2011

One Worth Catching

The people in Contagion are probably among the most well organised, well behaved victims I have ever seen in a disaster movie - a smashed window here, a building on fire there but, on the whole, the people who survive the deadly influenza that afflicts the world conduct themselves with commendable sobriety. Matt Damon, in particular, is a bastion of good sense and moral virtue - as one would probably expect. How very different things would have been had the same story been directed by the politically-minded purveyor of zombie gore George A. Romero (writer and director of the Dead movies), to which Stephen Soderberg's film owes some debt.

The biggest difference between the two is the amount of research up on the screen. While Romero's films are almost always allegorical, Contagion takes its cues from pathogen science and viral mutation. The film sometimes resembles the kind of instructional video the World Health Organisation might put out in order to increase awareness (the experts generally agree that we are long overdue a similar disaster), albeit one with a much larger budget than would typically be allocated and an A-list cast.

Personally, I enjoyed the film for its educational quality - apparently the most important measure that governments and other international bodies need to establish in the event of a global pandemic is something called the R=0 (or R-nought); the daily infection rate. An R=0 of 2 means that on the first day 2 people have the disease, on the second 4, on the third 16, then 256, then 65,536...

The film is more concerned with logistics - establishing forums for the distribution of food packets, commandeering sports halls and other public spaces where the sick can be cared for and quarantined, ('FEMA can go over there') - than it is with getting under any of the character's skin (ha!). Soderberg relies on the fact that his actors are all famous faces towards whom the audience will already feel predisposed - Lawrence Fishburne is a solid authority figure, Matt Damon is Mr Dependable, Marion Cotillard is beautiful and French and... was that Elliot Gould?

The one actor who plays slightly against type, and who probably has the most interesting role in the film, is Jude Law's oddly-accented blogger (which former British colony is he supposed to come from?) Law wears a snaggle tooth (his idea apparently), so you know he is not to be trusted but it is his dubious obsession with getting hits on his website that brings the film into the 21st century. The idea of information spreading like a virus is not novel but Contagion does a very good job of illustrating the way in which instant communication globally via the internet enables information as well as misinformation to spread with (sometimes) alarming rapidity. This, for better or worse, is clearly threatening to the established authorities. 'Blogging isn't writing, it is graffiti with punctuation', says Elliot Gould, challenging Law - a funny line but the old media message is implicit: don't trust those horrible new media types, they are just as crass and venal as the established order, if not more so.

Probably the most enjoyable science lesson I have attended this year, the trailer led me to believe I would be getting something from the point of view of the virus (brilliant!). However, I was perfectly happy to watch the institutional point of view - very intelligent people doing their best and just about keeping it together under exceptional - One Worth Catching - Keyword description


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