Friday, November 11, 2011

Do Not Touch

Steven Soderbergh is a producer’s dream: he brings his movies in on time and budget.

He makes films like the commercially successful Ocean’s franchise and in turn makes more arty film like Kafka, which I haven’t seen, and The Limey, which I did. It sank like a stone, but that’s probably because it’s a very intelligent meditation on revenge, using some intriguing editing techniques.

The man is clearly no fool. Hell, some of his movies even manage to combine commerce and message, as in the “iconic” Erin Brockovich, which had a nice feminist and topical public health angle to it.

And now there is Contagion, which tries to combine the latter two films, and some. Marketed as a thriller, it is also an industrial flick, which shows us just how a disease spreads. And it's a music video - to keep the beat going for that long, initial section where people all over the globe are attacked by this invisible thing and not much dialogue is required.

Borrowing heavily from Hitchcock, le directeur also quickly dispatches of a heavyweight leading lady or two, in one case showing us just how pretty - Cronenburg-like - the inner flap of her skull might be. One woman in the cinema almost choked on the popcorn she was so loudly munching, which kind of made up for the loss of an actress who has a very sexy voice and is married to a singer from a terrible band.

Anyway, if Matt Damon plays the new Mr Reliable after the semi-retirement of Harrison Ford, then he isn’t really given much with which to work and the hero of the story is, refreshingly, an unassuming scientist. Jennifer Ehle plays her quiet character to perfection – and she doesn’t have much to work with either.

This is the second time Soderbergh has worked with Damon and writer Scott Z. Burns; their previous outing was The Informant! a slow, droll corporate comedy that involved a lot of cellphone calls and meetings in boardrooms. So too this film, which becomes a little boring after a while, even if it is only a very considerate 106 minutes long.

But we persevere because Oscar Wilde said the next war would be fought with test tubes, even though the film’s premise is paradoxical. On the one hand it’s saying we must be very, very afraid of who and what we touch, on the other it doesn’t want to freak us out too much, so it shows us how clever and brave one scientist (working in America, of course) is.

If the virus were to continue its trajectory it would wipe out about 70 million people, which is a lot, but nothing if you think that we’ve just reached the 7 billion mark. And who’s the antagonist here anyway? The virus? The somewhat nutty blogger (Jude Law doing a kind of crytpo-Julian Assange number), saying it’s a conspiracy, it’s just the pharmaceutical companies trying to make more money? The companies themselves?

No, dear friends. We in the West must get rid of all bugs, for they serve no purpose, and we really mustn’t touch those darned Chinese, whence all diseases come.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week there will be a review of the exceptional The Debt, starring Helen Mirren, a passionately intelligent meditation on the nature of revenge and lies in the troubled land of Israel.

** The photograph above is not from Contagion but from the TV series Downton Abbey. Early-20th century England suddenly became postmodern New Zealand. The photograph was taken with my cellphone off the TV set. Series three has already been commissioned.

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