When is a disaster movie not a disaster movie? When it has all the trashiest ingredients of the genre, but a director who resists the crowd-pleasing impulse to exploit them. In other words, when it's Steven Soderbergh's new film, Contagion.
It opens with Gwyneth Paltrow returning to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong. She puts her tickly throat and pasty skin down to jetlag, but suddenly she starts foaming at the mouth. Shortly afterwards, her young son exhibits the same symptoms in a grisly scene that pushes the boundaries of the 12A certificate. And then, before you can say Sars, there's a mysterious, lethal virus spreading all over the globe.
The disaster-movie clichés are soon spreading, too. The characters keep lecturing each other on vaguely relevant illnesses, while important-looking captions appear on screen, such as: "Chicago. Population 9.2 million". Yes, well done, Steven. We've got Wikipedia, too. But what difference would it make if Chicago's population were 9.1 million, or 19 million?
The puzzling thing is that Soderbergh is lowbrow enough to employ all of these clichés, but not lowbrow enough to employ them in a way that might be exciting: his high-mindedness kicks in at just the wrong moment. Contagion has a single dad (Matt Damon) who has to protect his daughter from looters and germs alike ... and yet he does so without much difficulty. It's got an investigator (Marion Cotillard) whose eagle-eyed detective work traces the disease back to its origins ... and yet her discoveries don't affect anyone. It's got scientists (Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould) labouring to develop a vaccine ... by sitting diligently in their laboratories. There's even a sequence in which an official is bundled into a van by kidnappers who want to be first in line if a cure is manufactured, only for the film to forget all about them for an hour.
Proceeding with no sense of urgency, Contagion keeps mentioning the dangers and moral choices that could have given the story some tension, without engaging with any of them.
Maybe it's appropriate that a film in which human contact can be fatal keeps us at a safe distance from its characters. In some ways, Soderbergh's sober, academic approach is a refreshing alternative to the numbskulled Roland Emmerich brand of disaster movie, in which a global catastrophe is just an opportunity for the hero to drive at high speed and prove himself to his family. What Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z Burns, have gone for is a cinematic magazine article listing the situations that might occur if we were hit by a deadly pandemic. And they're probably right to suggest that the heroism in such situations would resemble the small, scattered acts of decency we see in Contagion, rather than anything involving a car chase through a meteor shower.
But, like most of Soderbergh's films, this one leaves you with the suspicion that the director is stimulated more by cameras and the effects they can produce than by the people in the vicinity of those cameras. His main preoccupation during the shooting of Contagion seems to have been its sickly yellow colour scheme. All very symbolic, I'm sure, but if the sky really did look like a sea of custard, then a virus would be the least of our worries.
Blood in the Mobile is an extraordinary campaigning documentary about the minerals that go into our mobile phones and laptops. Manufacturers claim that it's impossible to determine where these minerals come from, but they agree that a fair proportion are mined in eastern Congo. The miners then hand over their wages to whichever militia group is pointing its rifles at them that week, thereby perpetuating a civil war that's so far killed five million people. Not a single mobile phone in the world is guaranteed to be free of conflict minerals.
Frank Piasecki Poulsen's investigation is horrifying at times, but it's also fast-moving, funny and genuinely thrilling, as the Danish film-maker knocks on doors in London, Washington DC and Nokia's headquarters in Finland. (A Nokia spokesman concedes that they've known for a decade that they've been funding mass rape and murder, and that they're already taking "the first steps" to doing something about it.) But the film's highlight – if that's the word – is a real-life Heart of Darkness: a hallucinatory jungle trek to a hellish Congolese tin mine where ragged teenagers toil . It's one of the many places, remarks Poulsen, "where people die so that we can have mobile phones". You don't get that from Morgan Spurlock.
Nicholas Barber sees the bearded director take on the quiffed reporter in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin
Also Showing: 23/10/2011
Restless (91 mins, PG)
Wispy, whimsical Gus Van Sant comedy-drama about a morbid boy (Dennis Hopper's son Henry) who falls for a girl (Mia Wasikowska) with terminal cancer – the kind of terminal cancer, that is, which keeps you beautiful, strong and pain-free until you die. It's gauche, but sweet and sincere with it.
Monte Carlo (109 mins, PG)
Cinderella meets Sex & The City 2 as a Texan teenager (Selena Gomez) is mistaken for an English heiress, and spirited away to the land of expensive jewellery and luxury hotel suites.
Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (92 mins, PG)
Please, God – no more hyperactive, day-glo films based on sassy children's novels. Like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Horrid Henry, this one will leave adult viewers feeling as if they've been buried alive by an avalanche of bubblegum.
Four (87 mins, 15)
Turgid British indie thriller with similar scenario to last year's (better, but still not great) 44-Inch Chest.
Reuniting The Rubins (97 mins, PG)
Timothy Spall gets his feuding children together at the behest of his mother, Honor Blackman. Dreadful comedy drama.