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27 October 2011

Familiarity Breeds Bad-Ass Viruses

I finally got around to seeing Contagion tonight; I say "finally" because although it has only been out for a week in the UK, it had already been released in the US when I was in New York and so it feels like it's been around for a long time. Some spoilers may follow, although to be honest, it really isn't the kind of film that has major twists. It is just a rigorous, detailed account of what happens and who is affected when a bad-ass new infectious disease appears on the scene.


As Contagion opens, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning to Minnesota from a business trip in Hong Kong. She's been feeling pretty crappy but, it turns out, she has just enough time to breathe over some dice for luck in a casino, allow an Estonian woman to handle her phone and meet up with her former lover in Chicago. By the time she gets home, husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is seriously worried about her and within a couple of days she has had several seizures and died, her young son (Mitch's step-son) also dying. Mitch, it transpires, is immune, although his teenage daughter, who was at her mother's house while Beth was infecting everyone, is probably not. Before long, tens, then hundreds and thousands of people all over the world are becoming sick while scientists struggle even to work out what is causing the disease, let alone how to stop it.

At the CDC, we have Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) who is working on finding a vaccine, while CDC bigwig Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) tries to prevent people from finding out too much about the epidemic and panicking. He sends Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) out to Minnesota to study some of the victims and talk to their relatives to find any connections between the outbreak. A San Francisco virologist (Elliott Gould) is making progress but CDC tell him he has to shut down; he carries on regardless and fortunately, makes a crucial breakthrough. Meanwhile, in Geneva, epidemiologist Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is trying to find patient one; she thinks it is Beth but trying to persuade people in Hong Kong to give her the information she needs to prove this turns out to be more difficult than expected.

Then there's Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger (sorry, I mean freelance journalist), who is peddling his alternative remedy, which he claims will protect against the disease. He discourages people from taking the official vaccines (if and when they become available) and creates a vlog where he pretends he has been infected and then magically cured by his remedy. Then again, Ally Hextall clearly didn't watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes or was just too desperate to find a vaccine to worry about the limitations of n=1 trials. One monkey has been immunised against the disease by a particular variety of the vaccine so Ally injects herself with it; soon, we're watching lotteries determining the order in which people can be vaccinated so we're assuming the vaccine worked in humans too. Not exactly good science, though. Meanwhile, her boss Cheever looks like he will be in trouble, assuming that humanity does pull through; rumours are circulating on the internets (including on Krumwiede's blog) that Cheever gave his wife advance warning to get the hell out of Chicago and join him in Atlanta just before road blocks were set up. "I'd do it again," he said.

Soderbergh skips neatly from day to day of the epidemic and from character to character. Being an A-list celeb does not prevent you from meeting a grim death, convulsing on the floor and foaming at the mouth. But the film is far from emotional; in fact, it is a very detached, matter-of-fact telling of what could happen were we to find ourselves in the midst of such an epidemic. There is rioting, looting and a bit of panic, of course, particularly when people try to get their hands on food, Krumwiede's remedy and the vaccine, but Outbreak it ain't. It was, however, surprisingly compelling, although I was almost hoping we might get the drama of the virus mutating and Mitch suddenly discovering he isn't immune any more.

Ultimately, we discover that the virus emerged through some bat-pig interaction out in China, and was eventually transmitted to Beth's grubby little mitts. So it was a little unsettling that before the film there was an advert for the Natural Confectionery Company's modular Guzzle Puzzle sweets, which encourage you to combine flavours to create even more flavours. Mash-ups are good, they suggest, as they whip out a cat-donkey hybrid, which they call a catonkey. Kids, don't let your cat play with your donkey because that is how Crazy Bad Viruses are created.

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