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There is a thin line between a thriller and its more explicit cousin the horror movie. Both rely on the filmmaker’s ability to enthrall the audience by instilling an impending sense of danger. In the case of the outright horror film the source of the terror springs from lumbering killing machines such as Frankenstein’s creature or the embodiment of nightmares as depicted with Freddie Kruger. In most of these instances the horror is imbued with a humanoid form which encourages the audience to attribute familiar motives and methods. The recent thriller 'Contagion’ master auteur Steven Soderbergh employs a substantially more frightening antagonist, the tiniest possible creature, a virus. As far as sources for terror go this is arguably one of the best in the varied arsenal of a well seasoned screenwriter. You can run and hide from a monster in human form and perhaps have the means to escape the carnage. With a virus there is no guarantee of safety. A viral disease cuts a path of death across humanity with no regard for wealth, social position or political might. This small string of bimolecular specks is able to proliferate faster than any weapon devised by man and is not subject to obeying the boundaries of any border. What Soderbergh has accomplished with 'Contagion’ is to perfectly craft a thriller that is topical, gripping and frighteningly possible. A cursory review of history will show that plagues and pandemics and decimated humanity on a fairly regular basis. Keep in mind that these instances were before the age of rapid, global travel available to a significant percentage of the world’s population. A virulent disease as portrayed in this film could easily spread around the earth in a remarkably brief time. the chance of encountering a supernatural creature like Freddie of Michael is nonexistent but while watch this film just keep in mind how many times each day you touch a surface that dozens have touched before or stood in an elevator beside a person sneezing or coughing. Just a single casual encounter is all that is necessary to pass on a deadly, unstoppable pathogen. Soderbergh has crystallized this natural source of terror and distilled it into a taught, masterfully crafted film that will mesmerize you completely.

Few directors have managed to succeed in using the format Soderbergh selected for this film; intersecting plot lines. Robert Altman built a long and illustrious career on movies constructed in this fashion considered by most to be among the purveyors of the cinematic arts. The movie is expertly woven by a set of storylines that flow through and around each other. The mastery is in how this cutting edge filmmaker infuses each individual thread with vitality unique to itself. This is only the first part of the mastery the genius is how that individuality is not sacrificed as Soderbergh weaves them into a larger beautifully detailed tapestry. Unlike dictates of conventional cinema this film lacks a central human figure and the antagonist is unseen yet ever present contagious agent. The effect of this is to take the thriller and present it as if it were a news story. The core of the film is not concerned with the efforts or reactions of the individual but yield to the greater scope of a dire threat to the survival of our species. This is star studded cast representing a cornucopia of ‘A’ list talent that is exceedingly rare in modern movies. It demonstrates their commitment to their craft to lend their considerable abilities to a project that by virtue of its conceptualization lacking starring roles. Still, through necessity there are a number of pivotal parts key to the establishment and continuance of the central premise. Gwyneth Paltrow has the first of such roles as American business woman Beth Emhoff. Returning from a trip to Hong Kong she stops in Chicago to engage in an illicit affair. This may seem to be superfluous perhaps unnecessarily salacious but it aides considerably to the establishment of the human foundation. Beth notices what she takes to be a common cold which is given to her son moving on to the school nurse who becomes a vector to infecting the rest of the students and faculty. Back in Minneapolis Beth’s condition worsens and succumbs to what is initially misdiagnosed as meningoencephalitis. This soon escalates into a major public health issue which pulls in the interest of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC fears it might be a biological weapon and dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an agent of the Epidemic Intelligence Service to investigate. The efforts to quarantine the city of Minneapolis by the National Guard fail and the public pain rapidly escalates.

The film highlights many aspects of a modern pandemic that ensure a more devastating spread than any in historical records. Modern transportation ensures the virus will spread at a wildfire pace while the public access to instant communication has the equally potent effect of spreading panic as quickly as the virus spreads the disease. This film provides the devastation as twofold with the global infection compounded by the panic that undermines the social structures of the globe. For all the scientific advancements we have made the smallest of quasi-living things can threaten to destroy our civilization. Soderbergh is a master at balancing the demands of so many plot lines and characters in such a fashion that there is a true synergy created where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In an age when thrillers have a tendency towards juvenile plot devices and cruelty as a motivation it is reassuring to see something created out of the darkest fears that are not at all irrational. With news stories full of reports of swine flu, bird flu and mad cow disease you go into this film predisposed to accept its premise. Soderbergh take full advantage of this providing one of the truly great films of 2011. He holds our society up to a scrutiny that instills terror in the audience and will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Posted 01/01/12

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