The Velvet Café

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It got the science right – but what about the story?

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Growing up with a mother who has a job that partly is connected to the fight against epidemical diseases can be a bit of a pain. Ask my children.

It severely limits the variety of candies at your birthday parties. My poor kids were only allowed to have wrapped candies at theirs. Not those yummy sweet-and-sour bands with raspberry taste for instance.

Sure, I believe most children have been taught by their parents to wash their hands frequently, but how easily isn’t it to forget when you’re in the middle of a party?  One moment a girl licks some cream from the birthday cake off her fingers. The next she has buried the same hand deeply into the bowl of snacks, trying to find the best, whilst spreading a veritable zoo of assorted gems on every remaining piece. So we never served anything but wrapped candy – even if it meant that we were stuck with pretty boring pieces of toffee.

Once I brought my girls to a theatre to watch premier of a children’s play. There they had to watch how every other child in the audience treated themselves with a ton of candy from the public buckets, which was offered as a first-night special. I felt kind of bad for them, but the thought of the exchange of viruses that must have been going on in those bowls made me shiver, so I had no choice but to refuse them to touch it.

Getting cautious
After years of working in connecting fields, I’m afraid I’m a bit damaged. I still hesitate to eat raw bean sprouts in restaurants since I know they’ve been connected to outbreaks of food poisoning, something most people are mercifully unaware of.

But perhaps people will become a little bit more cautious after watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion which depictures a possible pandemic scenario. Every time someone coughed in the theatre I could sense the vibes of annoyance and fear in the air. How inconsiderate! Who knew what was flying around in the room, threatening the health of everyone?!

The question is how long it will last. Judging from how quickly the interest for using hand sanitizers evaporated after the most recent A (H1N1) outbreak, I have my doubts. It’s harder than you may think to make a long lasting impression and change people’s behaviour over time.

Listening to the experts
In any case I believe that the centres for disease control over the world ought to be pretty pleased with this movie. I’m not a doctor myself, so I can’t judge all the details, but for all I can tell they seem to have gotten the science part of it pretty much correctly. (Although I wonder if they’d really test a vaccine candidate on just one person, even if they were in a hurry.)

As far as I understand it, they’ve had a bunch of experts giving them advice, and it appears as if they mostly have listened to them. If I worked at one of those institutions I’d at least be quite pleased with the result. Contagion doesn’t only raise public awareness about infectious diseases; it also promotes the work that the authorities put into fighting them, and might make people more willing to give financial support to surveillance and research about it.

So the professionals did a good deal when they cooperated. They got something that is close to a propaganda movie in a flattering disguise.

The question is: is there a win-win situation here? Did the movie get better thanks to this – regarded as a movie? To be fair I’m not entirely convinced it did.

All over the place
There’s nothing wrong about basing a film on facts rather than imagination and speculation and the ambition to show many different aspects of what a pandemic means to society is good. I especially liked that they brought up the issue of rumours and false information spreading over the internet, which can just as a big threat as the virus in itself. Contagion could probably serve as – if not an educational film, at least an inspirational film for people interested in this field.

On the other hand – I believe that all those admirable ambitions also have contributed to a movie that feels a bit fractured. It’s all over the place, jumping from subplot to subplot, setting to setting, never exploring anything fully. There isn’t much room left to build well rounded, interesting characters with stories that I really care about. There’s an abundance of well known, skilled actors passing by – but how much are they given to do? Considering the seriousness of the topic, I feel way less than I think I should do.

All in all it’s a 4/5  in my book. I liked it overall, but I suspect it mostly reflects my personal fascination for huge outbreaks of dangerous diseases and the challenges you face fighting them.

Purely judged as a movie, it’s well crafted but quite forgettable.

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2011) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

November 1, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in Contagion