Freak power outage brings a touch of reality to “Contagion”

0 Submitted by on Mon, 12 September 2011, 00:19
Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears in “Contagion.” Photo by Claudette Barius.

By Sandra Kraisirideja

On the eve of the opening for “Contagion,” the latest from director Steven Soderbergh about the outbreak of a deadly virus, a massive power outage crippled San Diego County, parts of Orange County County, Arizona and Baja California—and it seemed life was imitating art.

Phone lines were jammed, traffic was at a stand still and stranded motorists abandoned cars at gas stations until power could be restored. As night fell, nervous residents stood patiently outside grocery stores to purchase water, as each customer was let in one at a time to maintain some sense of order.

Power was restored before the sun rose on Friday, giving people a chance to spend time with long-forgotten neighbors and gaze at the night sky. The absence of electricity seemed to be a minor nuisance, providing a welcome change from life as usual for many.

The situation isn’t resolved so quickly in “Contagion,” a medical drama starring Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishbourne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard in four intersecting storylines that follow the path of an unknown virus that kills within a matter of days.

Soderbergh’s approach with “Contagion” is reminiscent of “Traffic,” which won him a Best Director Oscar in 2001. Both movies address an enormous problem that effects everyone on the planet but in very different ways. In “Traffic” it was drugs and in “Contagion” its viruses and what happens when an outbreak occurs.

In a lot of ways “Contagion” plays out like a medical procedural on TV but that’s not a slight. Outbreak movies in Hollywood are usually filled with contrived urgency and heightened emotion. Soderbergh manages to maintain dramatic tension by keeping the focus on the characters in the story and only showing glimpses of the mayhem that happens.

Anna Jacoby-Heron as Jory Emhoff and Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff in the thriller “Contagion,” a Warner Bros. Picture release. Photo Claudette Barius..

Once its obvious that the virus is real and that there is no cure we see just how quickly law and order disintegrate. There is a lot that is taken for granted, such as police and fire services, even trash collection. People felt the power outage in San Diego gave everyone a chance to reconnect but I have a feeling it wouldn’t have been much fun the second or third night. The novelty would have worn out pretty quickly. In the few hours where power was out I got a taste of just how much I rely on my portable devices to get through the day.

Much of “Contagion” is spent following the government doctors and scientists, played by Fishbourne, Winslet and Cotillard, who work tirelessly to create a cure. Unlike “Traffic,” which illustrated just how impossible it is to stop the drug problem, “Contagion” shows just how hard governments and international agencies, like the World Health Organization, work when an outbreak occurs.

Soderbergh must have been impressed by what he learned at the Centers at Disease Control because those folks are the heroes of the story. Besides the virus the movie’s only other antagonist is a blogger played by Jude Law. His character distrusts governments and big corporations, which he suspects are behind the outbreak, and while he appears to be after the truth his motives are questionable. One of the best lines in the movie is made at Law’s expense when he’s told blogging is just graffiti with punctuation.

In addition to global warming, terrorism and the Zombie apocalypse we now have to worry about a deadly super virus wiping us out. You may not need a box of kleenex during “Contagion” but you’ll definitely want hand sanitizer nearby when it’s over.


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