Bringing the three main actors from 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley back to the screen in a new film along with our old friend Morpheus from The Matrix (Laurence Fishburne), is not as much fun as a return would have been to the believe-it-or-not world that Tom Ripley inhabited. In 1995 we had to suffer through Dustin Hoffman’s airborne virus in Outbreak, in 1971 it was the late Michael Crichton’s alien virus in The Andromeda Strain – which was re-inflicted on the viewing public again in the 2008 made-for-television remake when scientists had to “discover what has killed the citizens of a small town and learn how this deadly contagion can be stopped.” Gee, really?
OK, so the beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow at age 40 resembles Fred Gwynne of Herman Munster fame after they slice her head wide open at the beginning of the film in a grotesque and uncomfortable tribute to the Saw movie series. The young audience of the 21st century seems to like this sort of thing but for the intellectual moviegoer this Stephen Soderbergh directed film is reaching out to, well… Soderbergh did such a fine job with Erin Brokovich (2000) and fell flat two years later with Full Frontal (2002) so…with an idea so dependent on great direction we’ll have to issue him a D or a D- for total lack of effort.
The obvious reference to Night of The Living Dead with the humans cannabilizing grocery stores and gas stations adds more discomfort to an already disconcerting theme. The idea of a bat and a pig combining to create a virus is not as sexy as The Adromeda Strain (also a concept that fell flat, despite the usually reliable mind of the aforementioned Michael Crichton), and would have been more believable if some right-wing religious fanatic had concocted the killer virus in a laboratory.
It’s not to say the film isn’t without some thought-provoking merit, but just as The Change-Up failed due to the grotesque use of bodily functions that hardly make for an evening’s worth of entertainment, Contagion is fixated on the morbid side of things. And with no air let out of the room this is just a maze of depressing moments which combine to leave the viewer – not with a sense of being on a mystery ride with great detective work by all involved, but a hit or miss look at the emotions of an intellectually deprived populace that is whacked with a menace that is transmitted by touch. Where Fishburne would use the telephone to communicate in the Matrix, in Contagion the telephone is as much a killer as the pole on a bus used by thousands of passengers to steady themselves on a ride, or the deadly kiss of the beauteous Paltrow having an affair behind Matt Damon ‘s back. The most fun person in the film is the whacktivist played by Jude Law…file under Ripley’s Revenge.
Elliot Gould at 73 is looking every bit his age as Dr. Ian Sussman and Kate Winslet turns in a fine performance as Dr. Erin Mears – all excellent acting overcoming a very limited script. The moral lesson – and warning – is more than in your face but it is wrapped up in a box that goes down a dark alley to nowhere which Will Smith’s I Am Legend got lost in. Too bad. All this talent could have delivered a more refined Talented Mr. Ripple-effect, a jolt that entertains as well as mystifies. Alas…there will be additional films about a virus gone wild so let’s hope they learn from the mistakes in this one. Won’t hold up to repeated viewings.
Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He was a film critic for Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com and produces and hosts Visual Radio. Visual Radio is a fifteen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed John Lennon’s Uncle Charlie, Margaret Cho, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere, Marty Balin, Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.