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ReThink Review: Contagion -- Hug a Scientist (If You Dare)

Posted: 09/09/11 01:58 PM ET

Diseases can be tricky movie villains. They're invisible and could be carried by anyone, making them particularly insidious and unnerving, and we have an innate fear of illness, whether it's killers like the plague or AIDS or the yearly discomfort from flu season. But you can't fight a virus like it's a psychopath with an ax, which is why so many disease movies have the infected turning into monsters or focus on the post-apocalyptic world after the pandemic has passed.

The new film Contagion tracks the first several weeks as a new virus sweeps the world, killing the infected in a matter of days. But what makes Contagion so unique and powerful is that the virus is only briefly the villain. Very quickly, that role shifts from the virus to the hands and faces of every person on the planet, and eventually to human nature itself. Watch the trailer for Contagion below.

Director Steven Soderbergh has assembled an all-star cast to tackle the many facets of the response to a pandemic, much as he did in his Oscar-winning 2000 film about the war on drugs, Traffic. Matt Damon plays Mitch, a father whose wife, Beth (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), is the disease's first victim (and that's not a spoiler since it's in the trailer). Jude Law is a muckraking blogger accusing the government of hiding information despite ulterior motives of his own.

But the film's true heroes are the scientists attempting to learn more about the virus and its origins in order to create a vaccine. This was particularly gratifying for me since I grew up in a family of scientists, and it's been maddening watching Republicans repeatedly ignore or mischaracterize science while publicly attacking scientists' motives and ethics.

The idea, as Republicans claim, of some international conspiracy of scientists attempting to hide information disproving evolution and climate change is ludicrous, since any scientist would love to find irrefutable evidence that overturns accepted science, and any scientist who knowingly falsified results would be risking their reputation and career.

The scientists in Contagion (which include Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould and Marion Cotillard) are much more like the scientists I grew up around -- dedicated men and women who truly love science, the discovery of the unknown, and unlocking mysteries that improve people's lives. Contagion is actually a great lesson in how organizations like the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization work as they attempt to find a disease's origin, track its spread, and find ways to fight it. It's these scientists who risk their lives on the front lines of the world's deadliest microbial battles, and they deserve respect.

While the circumstances in Contagion become increasingly desperate as fear grips the population, the body count rises, government services shut down, and food supplies dwindle, the film maintains a calm, matter-of-fact tone that feels more concerned with reporting than judging or manipulating. And while characters sometimes do morally questionable things, their actions are understandable considering the threat they're facing, and the film never condemns them. All the acting is strong, particularly Damon, who's finally able to bring his experience as a father to a role along with his talent for giving natural, understated performances.

Contagion doesn't get its thrills from gore and surprises, but from the fact that the events in the film are so frighteningly plausible, quickly making you acutely aware of every cough, sneeze or sniffle you'll hear in the theater, as well as how often you touch your face, which the film says is a staggering 2-3,000 times A DAY. I can easily imagine Contagion being used as an educational tool, since there aren't many movies that fill you with such an overwhelming urge to wash your hands.

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