You may think differently now about subway poles and doorknobs


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            When Gyneth Paltrow coughs twice in the opening scene of Contagion, we know where we're going. When she eats peanuts from a dish in the Hong Kong airport bar and hands her credit card to the bartender, we know also that her fatal disease will flow from there to London and Minneapolis in its first manifestation. And then the world. Paltrow does a good job of dying. Watching her in mid seizure is tolerable, but it's Eyes Snap Shut Time when the doctors do her on-screen autopsy.
            To be fair, we aren't subjected to much of the grisly stuff. Instead, when the Center for Disease Control gets on the case, the movie turns into an interesting detective story as the doctors try to deconstruct the virus in order to make a vaccine. We learn first that they are dealing with transmission by contaminated surfaces, aka phomites. You may well think differently from now on about subway poles, doorknobs, shaking hands or taking a sip of a friend's drink. Did you know, by the way, that the average person touches his/her face more than 2000 times every day?
            Director Steven Soderbergh and a cast of nicely familiar faces are effective in keeping the panic temperature at a slow boil. Credit Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne for professional performances along with sensible widower and father, Matt Damon. Reserve special attention for Jennifer Ehle who manages to convey a serious, calm intelligence that makes us listen. In a pleasant gaggle of medical professionals, Ehle's Dr. Ally Hextall is the character who draws us into the story.
            This movie attaches itself to today's culture in many ways. The technology is abundant. Look at Jude Law's villainous blogger who spreads terror and lies on the internet. And consider that a pop culture movie like this one needs fertile ground in order to take root . For example, a big earthquake movie is not likely to seed fear on the east coast where residents don't expect to experience a major one. Californians laughed at the recent tremor that sent New Yorkers running from their office buildings. What they don't realize is that for New Yorkers 9/11 was the ultimate terror movie that plays subliminally to this day. For them, an earth tremor might be an attack, not an earthquake, and they want to get out of tall buildings.
            The most uncomfortable part of Contagion (a less inflammatory title might have been Anatomy of a Pandemic) is not the disease itself but the panic and looting that sets in when people can't get food or vaccine. One thing seems certain. If this kind of thing should happen, human behavior is likely to be much worse in reality than it is on the screen. And remember: bird to monkey to bat to pig to human hand to doorknob to face. You may even be forgiven if this movie turns you into a compulsive, germaphobic hand washer like Donald Trump.


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