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The rapid spread of 'Contagion'

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Film offers realistic possibilities of pandemic

Hollywood has been in love with the idea of the disaster movie for decades. The potential for huge, effects-laden blockbusters is obviously a temptation for studios looking for big box office receipts. However, these efforts tend to be hit or miss.

"Contagion," directed by Stephen Soderbergh ("The Informant!"), might just be the biggest hit in recent memory.

The film offers a glimpse at what might happen if a new disease emerged, a disease that is easily transmitted, incubates quickly and constantly mutates - and is fatal in as many as a third of the people it infects. Lynn Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, "Country Strong") returns from a business trip to Hong Kong feeling a bit under the weather, only to see her health quickly fail. Her death, as well as the death of her son, greatly impacts her husband Mitch (Matt Damon, "The Adjustment Bureau") - one of the lucky people who prove naturally immune.

Meanwhile, a group at the Center for Disease Control - led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne, "Predators") and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, "Revolutionary Road") - is trying desperately to find a way to get this disease under control. Ditto Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, "Midnight in Paris"), a researcher for the World Health Organization.

And all the while, a conspiracy-crazed blogger named Alan Krumiwede (Jude Law, "Repo Men") has broken the story, inflaming the public and looking for his own way to cash in on the chaos that has befallen the world.

We watch as the disease spreads quickly and insidiously, the epidemic rapidly sweeping the globe as governments desperately try to find a solution as millions upon millions the world over are growing sicker and dying.

What makes this film so effective is the simple truth that it feels ... real. This disease doesn't come from space or some government lab - it simply evolves. It spreads quickly, yes, but in a realistic fashion. It isn't one of those movie diseases where if you get it, you die. Some people survive their illness. However, any disease that most people can contract with a 25-30 percent fatality rate would quickly result in millions of dead. There are panics and riots at the beginning of the outbreak, sure, but after a while, people just start trying to get on with their lives. There are quarantines and streets littered with garbage and broken windows, but at the end of the day, people just carry on.

That might have made it even scarier; the way these events unfolded felt possible.

Of course, without some really solid performances, this movie probably would have fallen flat. Damon is excellent as the concerned father. Fishburne brings his usual gravitas to his role as the face of the CDC. Winslet and Cotillard are good as well. However, the best of the lot was probably Law, who portrayed just the right note of slimy selfishness tinged with paranoia.

(I must admit, there was a small part of me that took great pleasure in the gruesome and painful seizure-laden death of Gwyneth Paltrow. Does that make me a bad person? Perhaps, but no regrets. She deserves it.)

The reason this movie is so frightening - the reason that it works at all - is because it treats the subject in a realistic fashion. After watching "Contagion," I can guarantee that you will never be as conscious of everything you touch as you are walking out of that movie theater. It's scary and believable and horrifying. Between the consistent excellence cast and Soderbergh's deft, steady hand, you've got one of the best disaster movies in two decades.

5 out of 5

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 December 2011 15:34

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