Contagion: Déjà Flu


When I heard that humanity was being wiped out I thought, Not again. It’s not the best frame of mind in which to approach an end-of-the-world movie. But pandemic films have bred at a rate to make the most virile virus jealous.

But, unlike the fun pandemics, Contagion tries to show realistically how the world would deal with a bad case of flu. It begins with Gwyneth Paltrow coughing. (Cough in the movies and you may as well get measured up for a coffin.) Before you know it, pig/bat flu is spreading from LONDON ENGLAND and TOKYO JAPAN to Minnesota. Now when you call 911 the voice says, ‘To report a death or request the removal of a body, please press 1…’

Like in scatter-gun director Steven Soderbergh’s previous film Traffic, we follow several characters in several places (mostly the USA): Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle as very earnest scientists of one kind or another, and Matt Damon as a non-scientist trying to look after his daughter.

It doesn’t feel like a cold plunge into reality. For one thing, it features a good half-dozen Hollywood A-listers and the dad from Malcolm in the Middle. I’ve never actually managed the government response to a flu pandemic (touch wood) but this felt like soapy nonsense. Contagion is a 12A pandemic. A few people (though not too many famous ones) die, but in the end it helps loved ones bond. If there’s anything remarkable, it’s the unpleasant portrayal of the Chinese, who appear, on the evidence of this film, to be a nation of disease-carrying, casino-running kidnappers. And the moral punchline in the epilogue is laugh-out-loud funny.

Then there’s Jude Law. He makes the virus look good, playing a scare-mongering blogger. Blogging is quite the fad these days, I hear. Law uses his blog to peddle a non-cure called Forsythia (presumably derived from the deciduous shrub named after Bruce Forsyth’s great-grandfather), all while wearing fake wonky teeth and doing a faultless impression of Bert the chimney sweep from Mary Poppins. Apparently the teeth were Jude’s idea.

But there’s always something a little gripping about watching civilization crumble. There are some perfectly good actors here. And Jude Law. I’d be lying if I said that when one character ended up in a mass grave even my jaded heartstrings did not twinge a little. And Contagion presented the flu pandemic business well enough to make me feel unreasonably guilty for handling doorknobs.

But overall there’s just not much new. I’m sick of looking at ill people, scientists, quarantines and roadblocks in films. The SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu panics were yonks ago. Contagion looks like a case of déjà flu.

– James Aber


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