Watching a film about the spread of a deadly virus which leaves one convulsing on the floor as a colossal brain haemorrhage does its worst is not best enjoyed in a cinema where everyone is coughing and spluttering. But this meticulously researched and old-fashioned thriller is well worth the risk of contracting a killer cold.
Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering is an apocalyptic thriller about the spread of a horrendous and uncontrollable virus which can be passed by something as innocuous as a thumbprint on a coffee cup or a hand on a doorknob. This may not be the first big-budget stab at a film about a deadly virus, but it is certainly one of the most gripping and convincing attempts.
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning to the US after a business trip to Hong Kong, but she brings an unwelcome guest along for the ride: DEATH. We join the young woman on Day 2 of the disease’s attack on her immune system and she looks no worse for wear than your average cold sufferer. Returning home to her husband (Matt Damon) is no comfort. Before you know it she is fitting on the kitchen tiles, foaming at the mouth and taking an early exit, Janet Leigh style. In the space of a few days, hundreds more suffer and before long 26 million have perished.
Soderbergh and his team of researchers have evidently worked hard to predict the likely progression of such a disease, presenting audiences with a realistic picture of the coping strategies and global ramifications. And plenty of pub-friendly facts are thrown in (we touch our face 3,000 times a day dontchaknow) but there is precious little in the way of character development. It is difficult to get too worked up when yet another innocent bystander contracts the bug or even when a brave young doctor (played by Kate Winslet) wakes up coughing herself into a stupor.
The film may struggle to tug at the heart strings when it comes to specific characters but its global approach to the terrifying consequences of a pandemic such as this makes for intense viewing. This old-fashioned approach to the thriller, which renders characters little more than vehicles for yet more catastrophe, is a refreshing break from the heaving chests and tearful goodbyes in Michael Bay’s disaster movie sub-genre. And featuring an impressive cast of Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Marillon Cotillard, keep interest levels high for the duration.
It is only in the last twenty minutes that thing begin to unwravel slightly. After following the painstaking progress of cure-hunting lab queen, Ally (Ehle), we cut anti-climatically to the discovery of an antidote which features no explanation whatsoever. Along the sidelines, Fishburne plays a beleagured health official who has got himself in trouble for using knowledge to get his wife out of harm’s way. But giving two hoots about a naughty government official is frankly an inconvenient distraction from the prospect of mass extinction and rather disappointingly Jude Law’s outrageous and fear-mongering blogger (the least convincing performance of the film) does not contract the disease and die a painful death. Missed a trick there, Soderbergh.
The whole grisly affair has been bathed in a sickening yellow light added in post-production and the largely hand-held camera work (rumoured to be Soderbergh’s own) all adds to the sense of infectious panic. Perhaps it lacks some emotional depth but the film certainly asks “what if?” with enough conviction to leave the audience avoiding the door handle on the way out.