First Night: Contagion, Venice Film Festival

Fast and frantic action proves too toxic for such wafer-thin characters

Contagion is one of a rash of recent humanity-in-peril movies. It is also another of Steven Soderbergh's baggy epics with multiple characters and globe-spanning storylines.

The villain is a lethal, airborne virus that Gwyneth Paltrow (an adulterous wife) brings back to the US after a trip to Hong Kong.

The film plays like a hi-tech version of cheesy 1950s sci-fi fare of the Quatermass or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers variety. It is entertaining enough, but loose ends abound and characterisation is wafer-thin.

The screenplay (by Scott Z Burns) takes the anxiety felt worldwide during the bird flu and swine flu epidemics and magnifies it a hundredfold. The virus that Paltrow unwittingly unleashes on America spreads far quicker than earlier diseases. It goes without saying that scientists haven't found a vaccine; evil pharmaceutical companies are looking for profit, even as the death count rises, politicians are thinking primarily about themselves and mobs will soon take to the streets.

Big-name actors are scattered throughout the cast. Kate Winslet is a heroic doctor. Matt Damon is a father and husband trying to cope when the virus hits his family. Elliot Gould has a cameo as a maverick doctor.

Marion Cotillard is a health official who heads to Hong Kong, where the outbreak appears to have started. Laurence Fishburne is the conscientious scientist, fighting a Canute-like battle against the virus. The plotting is so choppy that none of these characters are developed in anything other than the most cursory fashion.

Jude Law plays a blogger on top of the story long before the mainstream media. His presence allows the film to take digs both at print media (represented as slow, cumbersome and in its death throes) and blogging ("Graffiti with punctuation" one character calls it).

However, Soderbergh seems uncertain whether he is telling a cautionary, socio-political tale about the perils of globalisation or simply making an Irwin Allen-style disaster movie. He keeps the tempo so fast and frantic that we barely notice the underdeveloped characters and non-sequiturs.

Certain scenes are pulled off with tremendous visual imagination. For example, in one bravura sequence, Soderbergh shows how a tiny incident in a pig farm in China sets in motion a chain of events that puts millions of lives at risk. Equally effective is a scene in which a scientist tips off his wife, swears her to secrecy and tells her to get out of town. A casual word from her starts rumours spreading even faster than the virus itself.

As an action movie, Contagion passes muster. What it lacks is any infection of the subtlety or subtext you'd expect from a filmmaker of Soderbergh's experience and reputation.

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