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Lotsa people gonna die because of something Gwyneth Paltrow did

dir: Steven Soderbergh

As if germophobes and compulsive obsessives didn’t have it hard enough already.

Speaking as someone who has long been pathologically afraid of germs and contamination (the psych term used to be mysophobia, or, having too much time on one’s filthy, filthy hands), I don’t need flicks like this. I’m already freaked out enough by the prospect of infection that I am the person the scientists lament creating superbugs by using hand sanitiser and giving other neurotics a bad name.

I’m not at the mask or tinfoil hat stage just yet, but, you know, it’s only a matter of time.

Contagion does me no favours, does me no help. It’s almost as if it’s aimed specifically at people like me for whom the horrifying prospect of an epidemic like this, of evil germs finishing off many, many people, is almost too close to home to appreciate. It’s easy enough to handle zombie flicks, where the virus is transferred through biting. Hand washing and ethanol can’t do anything about that. But a bunker mentality and obsessive hygiene could, actually COULD help if this scenario came to pass. And that’s why it hits closer to home. It’s practically goading us with the propensities into indulging them further and falling even further down the rabbit hole.

Conversely, or perversely, actual epidemics that the media and World Health Organisation beat up don’t affect me at all. I’m no more afraid of the spectre of bird, swine or monkey flues than I am of meteorites or werewolves. But when they explicitly spell out in the flick (Kate Winslet’s character does so) the vectors of infection, and how basic they are, my skin crawled, and my stomach lurched multiple times.

Soderbergh does a tremendous job grounding this flick in reality. It’s a what if, but played out as a what if in the real world, rather than requiring sci-fi or genre horror concepts beyond the grim reality of what would happen if a percentage, even a small percentage, of the world’s population contracted such a virus.

The people that try to deal with this outbreak are the characters that are depicted here, albeit by very recognisable actors. It’s the heads of the Centre for Disease Control, the World Health Organisation’s epidemiologists, and the microbiologists whose expertise would, we hope, be our species’ saving grace.

Exploiting the situation are shitheads like an Australian blogger (Jude Law), and a lot of the American population, who seem to go batshit crazy like they’ve watched too many post-apocalyptic flicks. A flick like this, like lots of American flicks, contends that the general population, the great unwashed and nicely washed, are always a bee’s dick away from turning on each other. All it needs is a flu outbreak or a hurricane called Katrina, and the general American population that doesn’t have a panic room or an underground, fully stocked bunker is immediately going to start bashing in the skull of the person next to them in order to feast on the scooped-out goo.

There are a lot of characters in this flick, and because the flick, like the contagion, is moving very quickly, it doesn’t matter. There’s enough time or effort expended to recognise who’s speaking, but there isn’t the luxury to spend quality time in their presence. Except for Matt Damon’s character, and the daughter he’s trying to protect, everyone else is solely what they do. And that’s all right for this flick.

It’s all it needs to be. Like any good movie, the blame for everything happening rests with Gwyneth Paltrow. In life as well as cinema, all the evil and corruption the world has ever seen begins and ends with The Paltrow. Whether it’s Glee or oddly-named children, she is the root of far more evil than money, if you can believe it.

Not only does her character unleash this plague upon the world, but, being a “slut” as the flick sets her up to be, it’s her immorality that really is the clincher, even more so than the virus she hosts for long enough to give it to everyone else. She is married to Matt Damon’s character, and brings that shit home with her, infecting one of her children as well.

Is there no end to her evil?

Even dead she still haunts the husband, and haunts the rest of the drama, as an epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) tries to track the path the disease took, and how Paltrow gave it to a whole stack of people at a Macau casino, and thence the world.

Meanwhile, whole sections of the States (and the world) are infected, with people dropping like disease-ridden flies. The pace with which this is all happening is breath-taking, and horrifying. The editing and the soundtrack combine to make this almost entirely action-free flick oddly propulsive, and harrowing all the while.

I’m not sure I can explain it, but this was like a white-knuckle ride for me, far more so than a lot of action flicks. I can’t even really tell you why. Soderbergh hasn’t been making flicks like this all his career, but he’s never really had a type of flick that he specialised in either. He’s not bound by any genre, and nothing he does really looks like or plays out like his previous flicks. Yes, I am deliberately excluding the Ocean’s 11 through 13 flicks. Gods help us if he ever makes another one.

But this? This is like no other flick. The closest antecedent that people can quote is something like Outbreak, which had Dustin Hoffman and a monkey saving the world from an evil Morgan Freeman, but this is nothing like that. Contagion is far less about the heroic pursuit of the cure, and more about how people would act, how people will act, when the hammer comes down. It becomes, logistically, like the pursuit of the holy grail of the cure doesn’t even matter, because how do you produce and distribute a ‘cure’ to millions of people located around the world? It’s a piece of piss to do in Star Trek, because all you need to do is maguffin-something-in-the-isometric- dilithium-nanotechnology-Picard’s-shiny-head and shoot it into the atmosphere or whatever, just in the nick of time. But here? In the real world? What do we do, children, what do we do?

Jude Law’s character as a Julian Assange-type who claims to be speaking truth to power online, but is really just being an annoying shit, crosses so many ethical and criminal lines that he can’t help but be fascinating to me. The way the tortured logic he contorts plays out, to the extent where he’s potentially right about some stuff even when we know how wrong he is, about how the companies and the transnational health organisations collude for their own ends is spot on. What he does with this knowledge is just pure evil, and the impact it has on an already frazzled population is staggering.

And what does he hold up as his major justification? The number of hits that his blog is getting.

Fucking unbelievable, by which I mean, all too believable.

I thought this flick was powerfully strong. Probably one of the sanest and most mature treatments of this kind of subject matter that we’re ever likely to see. There’s nothing shrill or pedantic about how it plays out. It just posits a brutal setup, and carries through on it (mostly, though it seems that the ‘solution’ was probably too quickly discovered, all the same, considering the resources at play).

Just don’t watch it when you’re feeling particularly squirrelly, or are about to take public transport, because you’ll end up bathing in that sanitiser stuff, and that’s not good for anyone

8 times I had to stop myself from running to the bathroom and gargling with Ajax out of 10

“Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation” – fuck you, Elliot Gould - Contagion