Sep

17

 Is it alluring to the average entertainment-thirsty movie-goer to hit the popcorn palaces for yet another ailment film? If you saw and found OUTBREAK (1995) involving, and I think it was, even without the credible talents of Rene Russo and Dustin Hoffman, or all the dozens of such films over the century of film fantasies that disgust, inform or titillate, CONTAGION is still worth a visit.

Sardine-packing in all the A-list actors you could wish for aside from Sir Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles, perhaps, the film brings us to a renewed appreciation for how important constant hand-washing and hygienic mindsets are.

Though Gwyneth Paltrow (CONTAGION's first telegenic victim), Elliot Gould (a researcher who ignores CDC orders to destroy the pathogen samples in his lab for testing), the uninspiring Matt Damon (underused as the widower of frothy dead Gwyneth), Lawrence Fishbourne (CDC head), Kate Winslet (epidemiologist/researcher), the weird blogger played by Jude Law (with a distracting prosthetic tooth that throws viewers off every time he speaks) and Marion Cotillard (CDC disease investigator) and a quiverful of others are allup to snuff, the real protagonist in this investigatory thriller are the concepts of how fragile our sense of wellbeing is, given the ease of transmission of disease entities we know nothing of, as is the case with the mysterious MEV-1 followed here.

What the viewer gets an earful of is the workings of science and laboratories in the tracking, tagging and vaccine-producing process. When I was in the Peruvian jungle, and touching, using and appreciating the massive leafy pharmacopoeia of the natural 'drugs' profoundly abundant there, some trekkers with me kept hounding our barefoot shamin: "Why can't wecut all these bushes and use these healing properties right now?"

The shamin spoke precious little English, and my Quechua was rusty, so maybe he had no answer. But I knew why not already: It takes months of patient testing against myriads of substances to stabilize and replicate the properties needed to 'cure' or ameliorate diseases. Working with an unknown pathogen or virus, you have to isolate, refine, test, retest and do clinical studies on the entire ladder of phylogeny before you can dare test on humans.

Which is how it comes that Lilly and Pfizer make their money: They do the job, taking a Billion or two and a decade or more to bring a vaccine or tablet to market safely.

The "R-Noughts" and other statistical and scientific terms like "pathognomonic," "fomites," "paramyxovirus," "phylogenetic" and the like, all medical phrases—none neologisms–meant to impress the average theatre-goer (and they do) are instructive lessons in how we cannot demand instantaneous 'cures,' and the film cheats on having Gould's character identify the blowtorch virus 'way too quickly. But most in the audience won't notice. More culpable is the plot development that shows days going by matched with racing disease-afflicted areas of the world (essentially large blotches of people, planes and eating implements) is the resolution that comes mere months after the lethal initial exposures and deaths,. FEMA and the CDC are the real stars behind the curtain. The medical vaccine and pill process is arthritic. Were we privy to how the process serves to eliminate unnecessary dangers, it would reassure us, and we would be grateful, instead of making us as impatient as my companion in Sacsaywamman's wild fauna and flora in the sweltery Peruvian /selva/.

Coming so soon after the grocery hysteria engendered by Irene and Lee, however, the film has an added urgency. With the addition of the Red Alert of pre-9/11 potential terror plot, nebulous to amorphously defined (through no lack of police and FBI efforts, assuredly), CONTAGION provokes a panic that is not only real, it is downright pedagogical:

Two changes you will effect from the film: You will definitely stop touching your face as often as you heretofore have done. (The film is correct that we do indeed touch our faces hundreds of times a day, mostly unconsciously. Now you will get the startle response when you notice your hand is on your cheek or forehead.) And you will grab that loo door handle with a safety-buffer serviette next time you're in Grand Central Station, rather than breeze back to your bacterially teeming Zaro's mini-table and cutlery.


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