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.
Based on the 1987 videogame sensation and later made into an anemic 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick this latest version pits the forces of evil vs. good in the slums of modern day Bangkok but fails to capture any of the excitement that made Street Fighter a legend among gamers. In this edition evil crime boss Bison (Neal McDonough) is joined by henchmen Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Vega (Taboo of The Black Eyed Peas) in taking over the Thai city using extremely violent power. Out to stop him from adding to his growing collection of heads are a group of disparate warriors including the half-Caucasian half-Asian beauty Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) who has given up her American life of privilege to help the oppressed. Joining her in the fight are her Kung Fu master Gen (Robin Shou) an Interpol cop Charlie Nash (Chris Klein) who has been tailing Bison around the world and his co-hort homicide detective Maye Sunee (Moon Bloodgood). While most martial arts films are hardly a showcase for actors this film hits new lows. McDonough utters straight-faced lines such as “when people are hungry there’s nothing they won’t do because everyone has a price ” which apparently also means himself or why else would he take the role of such a wooden villain? The acting is so bad that even the Americans including Duncan Taboo and Klein feel like they’ve been victims of a bad dubbing job. As the lead the attractive Kreuk also proves to be a fierce martial arts artist which at least partially makes up for the pedestrian dialogue and leaden narration she has to utter throughout. The one thing Polish director Andrzej Bartkowiak has gotten right with Street Fighter is the kung fu of it all but that’s hardly enough to recommend slogging through the rest of this mess. As a renowned cinematographer (Terms of Endearment The Verdict) Bartkowiak exhibits a sharp eye for color and detail but the drab look of Street Fighter makes one wonder if as director he ever bothered to look through the lens at all. This is strictly paint-by-the-numbers filmmaking of the most unimaginative order. When Klein spots a flashing red button signaling an explosive device about to go off he yells “Bomb! Everybody out!” He just as well could have been talking about this movie too.