Contagion a sharp thriller from writer/director/cinematographer/editor/do-all Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11 The Informant!) is like an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel that never was. The movie quickly sets up its pawns in order to engage you in a game of pandemic chess where the terror comes from science and the humanity comes from your own empathy. Instead of relying on a sci-fi backstory outlandish deaths or large-scale set pieces Soderbergh lets the facts do the talking—and it's scary as hell.
Much like his Oscar-winning film Traffic Soderbergh unfolds the story by weaving in and out between a series of character perspectives: Matt Damon's Mitch who loses his wife to a mysterious virus and strives to protect the rest of his family; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle members of the Center for Disease Control racing against the clock to find a cure; Kate Winslet's Erin a field agent tracking down the source of the American outbreak; Jude Law's Alan a high-profile blogger searching for the truth behind the disease; and Marion Cotillard's Dr. Orantes another agent hunting for Patient Zero in Hong Kong. While the drama spans globally each characters' quarrels are playing out in a claustrophobic scenario a world in which any person they meet any object they touch can infect them with the life-threatening disease.
Soderbergh doesn't have much time to dive into his characters' backstories but the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully constructs each scene to deliver just the right balance of terrifying scientific babble and revealing personal drama. When the virus starts massacring the world population and vandalism riots and societal unrest emerge the thing that makes Contagion click is our interest in the personal stories. Damon as seems to be the case with everything he touches elevates the material being the perfect everyman and our surrogate for the too-plausible-for-comfort scenario. Fishburne too turns what's normally a plot-forwarding government agent role into a man dealing with the weight of his decisions watching citizens of the country drop like flies from his ivory tower. It's heavy stuff but Burns' playful dialogue helps the cast lighten the harrowing mood—only so the movie can pull the carpet from underneath you over and over again.
But in the end Contagion is Soderbergh's show. The director uses every ounce of cinematic artistry to leave us squirming in our seats with a fetishistic approach to shooting the most mundane of objects. The close-up is Soderbergh's weapon of choice honing in on common day objects that we realize are infested with germs (with the effect amplified by a thousand if you catch the movie in IMAX). A door handle a bathroom drier button the human face—Soderbergh lingers as a reminder of his invisible villain: the virus. That's a compliment: the design and photography is striking the purposefully pristine picture quality fills the characters' quest to stay healthy with tension. Composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score compliments the icky scenario germinating over the picture like audible infection. The world of the film is rich with detail. Just the icky kind.
Contagion isn't flawless. With so much going on things fall to the wayside—Cotillard's plotline specifically gets lost in the shuffle—but the reality keeps us engrossed. The movie plays like an oral history of a horrific event with each detail frighteningly exposed. Except in the case of Contagion it's not an event that has happened so much as one that could happen.
And at any moment.
Here's the real-life story: On Nov. 13 1974 inside a large Dutch Colonial house in Amityville Long Island the police discovered a horrific crime scene: The entire DeFeos family living there were slaughtered by the prodigal son Ronald DeFeo Jr. He confessed to methodologically shooting his parents and four siblings with a rifle while they slept claiming the "voices" in the house drove him to commit the grisly murders. Riiight. One year later happy couple George (Ryan Reynolds) and Kathy Lutz (Melissa George) and their children move into said house thinking they had found their dream home. But soon bizarre and unexplainable events began to occur thus speculating on the house's inner demons. A ghostly little girl-- with a gunshot wound in her head--wanders around talking only to the Lutz's daughter Chelsea (Chloe Moretz). Haunting evil voices keep telling George to "Katch 'em and Kill 'em." And yes there are flies involved. Lovely. While the confused and frightened Kathy struggles to hold her family together George's behavior oddly enough becomes increasingly erratic and dangerous. Hmmm. Time to pack up the stuff honey we're moving out!
Horror films never really procure deep meaningful performances. The actors mostly react to the terrifying events unfolding around them which is pretty much what George (Mulholland Drive) and the rest of the supporting cast end up doing in The Amityville Horror. On the other hand Reynolds--who was so funny in Van Wilder and was the only reason to see Blade: Trinity--actually shows off some genuine skills especially by spouting off sarcastic quips in his trademark delivery while at the same time turning into the bad guy red eyes and all. After one particularly harrowing scene in which Chelsea nearly falls off the roof of the house and Kathy tries to console her after getting her down George mutters "What is wrong with you people? God this family is screwed up." If Reynolds plays his cards right he could be on his way up.
Whenever The Amityville Horror is mentioned I'm reminded of an old Richard Pryor routine in which the comedian questions why you would stay in a house if it tells you leave. He says he'd just get the heck out. "Oh baby what a lovely house what a great house we can live here forever aren't we lucky? …[in a satanic voice] GET OUT…OK well gotta go! Been nice but we're outta here!" The original Amityville did suffer a little from that stupidity as well as listening to lame dialogue from a cast who tended to overact. Fortunately the remake guided by commercial director Andrew Douglas cuts right to the chase and surprisingly uses little to no special effects to achieve the chill factor. Of course the scares aren't really anything you haven't seen before: getting locked in a closet with a dead person nearly drowning in a bathtub as ghostly arms hold you down apparitions appearing in the mirror behind you stuff like that. But like The Shining the sinister atmosphere comes from watching a seemingly normal happy man transformed into a crazed homicidal maniac urged on by a place with a malevolent history. Especially if it really was suppose to have happened. Shiver.