Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 36
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

THE BREATH OF DEATH: At a meeting in Hong Kong, corporate executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, right) leans close to see something in an unidentified person’s hands. That brief encounter may well have caused the death of her companion as she may have transmitted her as yet unidentified deadly disease to him.

Contagion: A - List Cast Performs in Soderbergh’s Apocalyptic Adventure

Kam Williams

Ten years ago Steven Soderbergh won an Academy Award for Traffic, a multi-layered film that highlighted the hypocrisy and corruption that permeated the political bureaucracies that were waging the war on drugs. In Contagion, the director has fashioned an international adventure, with the focus on the medical community’s attempt to allay the public’s fears about a fictional outbreak of a deadly virus that turns into a global epidemic.

Soderbergh assembled an A-list cast featuring four Academy Award-winners — Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Gwyneth Paltrow, — as well as three Oscar nominees Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and Elliott Gould. Based on a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, the movie paints a grim picture of the paranoia that may accompany the rapid transmission of an unknown disease that is threatening the world’s population.

As the film unfolds we find corporate executive Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) fighting a cough as she flies back to Minneapolis following a business trip to Hong Kong. En route, she receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend with whom she rendezvoused in a brief layover in Chicago.

Upon arriving home, Beth’s symptoms escalate to include a fever, seizures, and she finally succumbs to the disease in less than 48 hours. Her grieving husband (Damon) has to come to grips with his sudden loss while simultaneously worrying about whether or not he and their children (Griffin Kane and Anna-Jacoby-Heron) might have caught the mysterious disease.

After an autopsy, the coroner identifies the cause of death as “MEV1,” a fast-acting pathogen that’s never been seen before. Retracing Beth’s route back to Asia, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) dispatches an epidemiologist (Winslet) to Hong Kong in search for answers, although that effort is too late because the infection has already escalated into a planetary epidemic.

Soon, people are dying in every city that Beth had contact with, and the authorities are trying to decide whether or not to cover up the problem in order to prevent mass hysteria. However, an internet blogger (Law) is able to disseminate information about a readily-available herbal antidote, although he has to fight being discredited for a past indiscretion of his.

Contagion’s complicated story contains many additional plot points such as an avaricious pharmaceutical company peddling an ineffective vaccine; a renegade scientist (Gould), who is being pressured to destroy the results of his promising research; and the ethical dilemma of a CDC official (Fishburne) who uses top secret information to direct a friend (Sanaa Lathan) to a safe haven, while leaving thousands around her to perish.

Though paling in comparison to Soderbergh’s more compelling Traffic, Contagion presents a chillingly plausible scenario at how quickly civilization might unravel in the face of a rapidly accelerating biological event.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity and disturbing images. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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