There is a school of film making of which Steven Soderbergh has already contributed with his 2000 film Traffic that takes a dispassionate view at weighty topics and the multi-stranded Contagion is very much a part of that, but it lurches left in the second reel in a surprising way.

The drug problem was the subject of Traffic‘s cold blue steel view and after the hours of its running time the film seemed to generate more of a sense of unease than an impact of imagery save Benicio Del Toro in swimming pool meeting.

Contagion works in a similar way swelling a feeling of unease but allowing the viewer a few simple messages: Internet bloggers like Jude Law are bad, scientists like Jennifer Ehle are good. It is a rare message but not a new one.

Science has few better advocates than Them! (1954, dir. Gordon Douglas) in which giant mutant ants created by atomic bomb testing terrorise a small town in New Mexico. Uncontrolled science of the army causes problems but the statesman like elderly Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn, better known as Miracle on 34th Street‘s Kris Kringle) brings about a solution through logical controlled science, and wins the day.

Science is rarely so helpful on the silver screen. In Danny Boyle‘s 28 Days Later… (2002) the virus that turns men into monsters escapes from a lab as scientists try to keep their testing secret. The virus turns Londoners into fast moving, blood thirsty zombies although no one ever says the “Zee Word” and no one ever groans in a low voice.

Zombies seldom are best seen as the undead and Boyle’s zombies are terrifying. Fast and driven they poise more danger than the extras with limbs falling off who populate the likes of Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir George A. Romero) or more recently Edgar Wright‘s 2004 zom-com Shaun of the Dead but perhaps they are too deadly, and too decisive when faced with the non-infected.

The right level seems to have been struck in John Carpenter‘s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 where gang members move like the undead, attack facelessly and terrorise a small police station. Carpenter’s characters are likeable under attack and the film that starts yellow bleached and bright ends dark but emotional.

Which is what Contagion misses: emotion, and zombies.


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