Starring: Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Kate Winslet, and Gwyneth Paltrow
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 106 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
The film begins by showing us Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from a business trip in Asia. She stops off in Chicago to cheat on her husband, and collapses two days later at home in Minneapolis. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), who is immune to the disease, rushes to her side, but she dies in hospital. Mitch returns home to find his stepson has also died after showing the same symptoms. The head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in the Department of Homeland Security (Laurence Fishburne) sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to investigate. Mears succumbs to the virus in her hotel room. Scientists cannot culture the virus, and their efforts to find a vaccine are complicated by a profiteering, crazy journalist-blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who claims he has found a natural cure, but hasn’t. Pharmacies suddenly are attacked, and the virus spreads wherever healthy people congregate. Eventually, a vaccine is developed with the help of CDC’s Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, in a particularly good performance), but, for bureaucratic reasons, because it is limited, it is distributed to people via a random lottery based on birth dates. Meanwhile, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) from WHO travels to Asia to try to find out from where the sickness originated.
The source is revealed. A mining company was clearing jungle land, and a bat on the land ate a banana, which was dropped into a pigsty. Pork from the slaughtered pig, which ate the banana, was prepared for a restaurant in Macau by a Chef, who shook hands with one of his diners, Beth Emhoff. The Chef hadn’t washed his hands.
The movie examines intelligently a host of consequences from that fateful handshake. There is mass hysteria as the disease spreads, rioting breaks out, personal motives interfere with finding solutions, bureaucracy hinders progress, and sensible health rules are broken when people panic. But the movie also raises unsettling questions of a broader kind. The lethal nature of the virus engenders distrust, but it is only by working together that a disease of this kind can be controlled, and that is especially difficult when being together is likely to be fatal. How does one cope with profiteering greed, and are there ethical limits for scientists, desperate to test their exploratory vaccines? When disease spreads by touch, should shopping malls be kept open for trading (as in this film), so as not to lose the sale of food that is needed?
The movie is tense, grim, tightly structured, and scary. Its potential relevance to what could happen in the world of today is chilling, and the reality of it all is heightened by wonderful acting from a superb cast. Soderbergh gives the film multi-layered plots, some of which work better than others. But, above all, it is thoroughly unnerving to see and hear what could happen so easily.
The film begins with two coughs in the dark signalling the disease has struck, and ends with a video shot of Beth Emhoff happily shaking hands in Macau. But, the film is limited a little in between by relaying its messages with touches of clinical coldness. Hardly anyone entreats, pleas, prays, or looks for spiritual solace from anybody else. The movie, for all its force, chooses to play out its scenarios with very few side-looks (though there are a couple of them) at humanity pulsing away.
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