Thursday, April 30, 2015

Guest Post: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)



Good Adventure Fun...But Not Great
The Avengers: Age of Ultron

By Jonas Schwartz

It’s ironic that the theme of Frankenstein and his creation runs through Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron because the plot has been cobbled together by old tropes like Ghost in the Machine, Lawnmower Man, Stephen King’s IT, Mary Shelley’s classic, and several episodes of the film’s director Joss Whedon’s landmark Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There’s a lack of inspiration in the second Avengers, or at least that patented Joss Whedon genius that made the first film so lively is missing. The action scenes lack punch. Luckily the script still contains Whedon’s witty dialogue, and the film contains a wicked performance by James Spader.



After a complicated mission leaves the team frazzled, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides this is the perfect time for a robotic savior, one who can keep the planet safe. He and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) bring Ultron on-board, but immediately, the Artificial Intelligence (Spader) declares war on The Avengers. Believing that the world would work better without humanity, he makes it his mission to destroy the planet. His army of robots put each member to the test.

The film’s energy cranks up every time Spader speaks. His voice -- knowing, angry and a bit afraid -- is both menacing and childlike. The animation and mechanical engineers responsible for Ultron’s look and movement capture Spader’s subtleties. The robot’s features moves like Spader’s would, so that the audience forgets there is no man in the machine. Though only a voice and scrap metal, Spader’s Ultron towers over all the other characters.

Ruffalo and Downey Jr. have always brought realism to their characters, not allowing the comic book tales to dissolve into cartoon. They bring that same aplomb to this film. The rest of the cast seems tired in their roles. Their line readings are wooden. Of the newcomers, Elizabeth Olsen brings pathos to Wanda Maximoff, the medically enhanced agent filled with hatred for the Stark family, who can manipulate memories, yet her Eastern European accent wavers.



Whedon directs the many battles with clever camerawork and editing, but the scenes get monotonous. The plot feels inconsequential. Even with the human race in jeopardy, the stakes have no gravity. On the positive side, Whedon’s trademark quips and asides brings levity to even intense action sequences. He allows his characters to be silly without selling them out.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron can claim to be one of the better Marvel Sequels. With the exception of Iron Man 3, which may actually be better than the first Iron Man, most of the sequels were directed by second-string directors (like Thor 2’s Alan Taylor). Avengers 2 has more spark than those films. However it also lacks the fan boy euphoria that Joss Whedon usually brings.  He normally creates a new universe but here he’s retreaded old territory. It’s enjoyable a first time, but it doesn’t make you want to rush back and see it again. Grade: B


Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonasat the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Cult-Movie Review: The Andromeda Strain (1971)


For my money, the late Robert Wise (1914-2005) remains one of the most underrated of all genre directors. 

Wise gave the world remarkable horror films including The Haunting (1963) and Audrey Rose (1977), and sterling science fiction pictures such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and, of course, the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-seller, The Andromeda Strain.

Underlining all these disparate efforts is the sense of a curious and engaged guiding intellect, an artist determined to treat his material with intelligence. Wise's films are cerebral, open to new possibilities, and rife with visual imagery that skillfully reinforces the content of their narratives. Throughout his genre canon, one can detect how deeply Wise respects both his material and his audience, and this quality is a rare gift, for certain.

The Andromeda Strain showcases this Wise style or approach to a significant degree. It is pitched at a high-level, features no spoon-feeding, and creates a flawless, impeccable sense of "reality" even when dealing with futuristic hardware and the "sci-fi" threat of an alien bug landing in an American town. The film seems frighteningly plausible.

Similarly, The Andromeda Strain's actors actually look and sound like real scientists, not super models or super-stars, and so nothing is allowed to shatter the film's sense of authenticity or, similarly, suspense.

I decided to feature The Andromeda Strain (which I have reviewed before -- in at least two books)) here on the blog today not only because I am a steadfast admirer of Wise's films, but because earlier in the week I reviewed Contagion (2011): a film also concerning a disease or virus. 

Soderbergh's more recent effort also trades, largely, on its sense of non-exploitative realism. In both efforts, there seems to have been ample opportunity to dial up the hysteria and melodrama, and in both cases, the directors resisted the temptation to make sensationalist works of art.

The Andromeda Strain imagines a future of science and high-tech computerization that today may seem dated, but underneath those bells-and-whistles the film -- much like Contagion (2011) -- is really about people. Specifically, The Andromeda Strain involves the ways that humans can sometimes erect barriers to success through miscommunication or personal foibles; barriers that, in the end, threaten civilization itself.


"Establishment gonna fall down and go boom..."

A satellite from Project Scoop carrying an alien micro-organism crashes in Piedmont, New Mexico, and exposure proceeds to kill all but two denizens of the town.

The U.S. government quickly marshals an emergency response, and two scientists, Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and surgeon Mark Hall (James Olson) explore the contaminated town in bio-hazard suits. They rescue the two survivors: an old drunk, and a crying baby.

Later, at a state-of-the-art, subterranean scientific facility called Wildfire, Hall and Stone are joined by other scientists including Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), and together the group attempts to determine if the strange alien micro-organism could threaten human life throughout all of America, and indeed the world.

Studies reveal that the alien micro-organism, code-named “Andromeda” is 2-microns in diameter. Possessing a crystalline structure visible only under electronic microscope, the ever-mutating Andromeda can also grow in a vacuum, and its development is accelerated by energy discharge.

Bad news soon reaches the base about their newly discovered “bug”: a super-colony of Andromeda has formed over the Pacific Coast and is growing larger by the moment. It could kill millions of people in days.

The scientists race to avert a nuclear strike on the colony that they recommended and that was subsequently ordered by the President of the United States, realizing that the energy involved in such a detonation would only impel Andromeda to grow even larger.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hall studies his patients -- the old sterno drinker and the crying infant -- and determines that Andromeda can only survive in a narrow range of pH levels.

Before this knowledge can be applied to destroy Andromeda, however, Wildfire is contaminated, and the base’s computer initiates a timed self-destruct sequence. 

Now Dr. Hall must race through the many, self-contained levels of the Wildfire complex to avert total annihilation.


"Enemy? We did it to ourselves!"

Mankind enters the “future age” of ascendant science in director Robert Wise’s impressive techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, and the film ultimately proves that technology and scientific know-how can battle a deadly space “bug” to a stand-still.

Accordingly, Wise and his film itself -- an adaptation of a Michael Crichton best-selling book -- seem to worship at the feet of machinery, medicine, and science, not to-mention provide a reverent near-religious litany of techno-talk. In this world, ordering up a computer test is more like quoting Scripture.

The film’s assessment of mankind, however, may seem less gracious. Here, mankind’s failings get in the way of progress, slow-down the process of stopping Andromeda, and nearly destroy the entire world. The film’s final message, diagrammed in a computerized “601 Error” is that machines are ultimately only as good as their users.

In other words, we are the weak link. If computers fail, it’s because of us.

From The Andromeda Strain’s dynamic opening credits, Wise takes pains to present new technology as a vivid brand of modern art. The colorful credits reveal overlapping, multi-colored images of schematics, inter-office communiques, top-secret documents, and the like.

These seemingly non-romantic dispatches are cut together and blended into new patterns (via superimposition) for the remarkable montage. These swirling and dazzling images are also accompanied by Gil Melle’s machine-like electronic score, and the final effect is both staggering and thematically daring. 

We might very well be watching a computer program’s vision of art. This imagery conveys the idea that machines aren’t just tools, but capable of moving into terrains that man has long reserved for himself: artistry, creativity, imagination.




In assembling the blueprints, maps, graphs and other images for the purposes of this montage, the film’s opening credits take a step beyond Jackson Pollock, forging heretofore unseen, unconnected patterns out of dot matrix scans and the like, in the determined synthesis of something new and bold.

The implicit message: technology is your friend.

This pro-automation approach runs deliberately counter to one of the most common ideas of 1970s science fiction cinema, as related in films such as Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or Demon Seed (1977), that technology will prove man’s undoing.

Instead, The Andromeda Strain’s dialogue reinforces the notion of a world in which science will save the day. The film is dominated by tongue-twisters like “Red Kappa Phoenix Status,” and the scientists eat “Nutrient 2-5” while ordering up a test called a “7-12.”

Although these phrases seem like meaningless jargon in simple human terms, in this world they are vital symbols of man’s ascent to a more evolved plateau.


The science-talk reflects Wise’s uncanny ability (also seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to forge a documentary-like or “realistic” tone in science fiction, but also suggests that in the first space age emergency, space age lingo is a necessity. Advances in computers, science and medicine will change the world, and they will also change how we talk, the film indicates.  Our words will change, in their very nature, as we embrace the machinery of the future age.

It’s difficult to deny that this is actually the case, and in 2015, laypeople talk about “wireless routers,” “diagnostic updates,” “system restores” and other once arcane-seeming phrases with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the scientists portrayed in The Andromeda Strain.  The revolution in technology involves not just what we can achieve with computers, but how we speak about them, and relate to one another over them.

The tools used by the scientists in The Andromeda Strain are often the focus of Wise’s intent directorial sight, and electron microscopes, computer scans, “electronic diagrams” and other visuals are regularly highlighted by the camera. The idea, of course, is that in the dawn of a new age, machines will make the difference between life and death on planet Earth. Robert Wise even once called his film’s setting -- the Wildfire Base -- the real star of the movie.

And of course, he’s right. Without the resources of this subterranean base, man would not be able to stop the spread of Andromeda.

Wise’s treatment of man himself is far less generous in The Andromeda Strain

For example, Dr. Ruth Leavitt is an epileptic, and she hides that vital knowledge from her co-workers and hence from the computerized databases in Wildfire. So when an important computer screen transmits its data to her in red-blinking lights, Leavitt cannot receive it. She seizes instead, and has no memory of having seen the crucial data.


Thus a personal embarrassment or foible nearly ends the world.  Ruth's sin, perhaps, is vanity. She does not wish to be seen as weak, or incompetent in front of the other scientists, but her plan to hide her illness nearly has catastrophic impact.

Again, no one can blame this series of unfortunate events on the computer, which accurately tagged the “no-growth” medium for Andromeda that Leavitt sought. Instead, user error -- human error -- is the culprit.

Similarly, the scientists at Andromeda order a nuclear strike at Piedmont before they have all the facts. They make an assumption that a nuclear blast will wipe out an alien organism, and this is -- again -- proven catastrophically wrong. In fact, the opposite would have been true. A nuclear blast would have spread a super-colony of Andromeda across the entirety of the North American continent.


In this case, the scientists are prevented from causing global-scale catastrophe only by a machine failure: a paper jam in a printer-like device. So again, even inadvertently, the machines of The Andromeda Strain save man from himself.

And, of course, Andromeda comes to Earth in the first place as part of a secret plot by the U.S. government to harness it as a bio-weapon, and then develop it at the Wildfire installation. Man brings about his own near-death by his self-destructive tendencies, by his jingoistic desire to defeat enemies. 

Other Wildfire denizens seen in The Andromeda Strain are not much more self-aware than Leavitt is. Trained scientists panic and flee when they believe that Wildfire is contaminated with the alien organism. They do not act rationally and attempt to help Hall, who has -- dangling around his neck in the form of a key -- the capacity to save everybody from nuclear apocalypse. Instead, they resort to fear, paranoia and terror.  Once more, we must consider that our machines are not susceptible to such influences.

But the screaming ninnies of Wildfire don’t consider this reason; don't measure their actions against the consequences of their actions.. Instead, they run around like chickens with their heads cut-off, and  higher-reasoning appears completely short-circuited. After all, if the base is contaminated, as they fear, then it is going to self-destruct, and no amount of running or screaming is going to get them to minimum safe distance following a many-megaton blast.  So why panic?


All of this material comes late in the film, but Wise hooks the audience early (and permanently) with his staging of the Piedmont reconnaissance.  

We are led, by two relatively staid scientists, through a ghost-town of sorts, the aftermath of a grisly disaster. And yet Wise doesn't linger or wallow in the terror.  


Instead, his camera again adopts a documentary approach, so that we are asked to observe the events in all their stark, clinical horror, but largely without editorializing.  He reports, and we take note, coming to conclusions ourselves about occurred to Piedmont.  Wise sticks with this restrained approach as, in the finale, the countdown to annihilation occurs.  

As a result, the film's denouement is extremely anxiety-provoking and suspenseful.  We feel we are watching real events unfold from a distance, and with no guarantee that things will turn out as we would prefer.

There may be some viewers who watch The Andromeda Strain and seek a more human-centered story about resolving the first biological crisis of the space age. But the film’s glory is that this is not the story it tells at all.

Instead, Wise tells the story of man’s amazing machinery solving the problem, and this is a creative, counter-intuitive approach to the material.  

 If we can just get out of our own way, the director seems to suggest, we'll be all right.

This idea is also -- in its own weird way -- optimistic.

After all, who built all these great machines in the first place?

Movie Trailer: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Late Night Blogging: The Incredible Hulk













The Incredible Hulk: "Alice in Disco Land" (November 3, 1978)


In “Alice in Disco Land,” David Banner gets a job as a bus boy at Pandemonium Disco, and meets a runaway teen, Alice (Donna Wilkes) whom he knew as a child. 

In fact, David has fond memories of taking care of Alice as a girl, and reading to her from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Now, however, Alice isn’t doing so well. Virtually abandoned by her wealthy mother, she is adrift and alone. And although she is a great disco dancer, Alice is also an alcoholic.  She can’t go a day without drinking, a fact that David gently reminds her of.

When David attempts an intervention, however, the disco’s ganger owner, Ernie (Marc Alaimo) thinks that Banner is compelling her to testify in a Federal case against him, and sets out to punish him.  But Ernie hasn’t counted on the fact that David can transform into the Hulk.

Before long, the denizens of Pandemonium Disco meet the Hulk on the dance floor, and terror ensues.




I had forgotten, before watching a few The Incredible Hulk (1978 – 1981) episodes this week, just what a time capsule for the 1970s the series is. 

“Alice in Disco Land,” which aired on November 3, 1978, derives all its energy from the ascendant disco culture of the era, including the blockbuster film Saturday Night Fever (1977). To wit, most of the action takes place inside Pandemonium Disco, and under a glitter ball.  

While David works as a bus-boy, hairy men in tight polyester pants and flowery shirts and ultra-skinny women (sans bras…) gyrate on the dance floor to songs you never heard of (including a disco-fied version of the series’ piano theme).





Underneath these disco trappings, however, it’s clear that “Alice in Disco Land” actually concerns alcoholism, and the story attempts to draw a signficant connection between David and Alice.  At one point, late in the action, Alice notes of her drinking problem: “You don’t understand, this is something in me. I need to control it.”

Clearly, those words resonate with David. The purpose of his life now is to control that thing inside himself, the rage that brings life to his alter-ego, the Incredible Hulk.  Both he and Alice must fight internal urges if they are to succeed against the odds, and be whole once more.

“Alice in Disco Land” is one of the episodes of The Incredible Hulk I vividly remember watching during the series’ original run. I was eight years old at the time, and I remember that my older sister and I attempted to re-create the disco milieu (using a Bee Gees album on the record player), and I would pretend to be the Hulk, smashing and throwing sofa pillows in our family room.

That personal story is no weirder, I promise you, than the events of“Alice in Disco Land.”  It was a strange time.

The Hulk defeats disco!

The Incredible Hulk Utility Belt (Remco)


Pop Art: The Incredible Hulk (TV Guide Edition)


Action Figure of the Week: The Incredible Hulk (Mego)


The Incredible Hulk Colorforms


The Hulk GAF Viewmaster


The Incredible Hulk Halloween Costume (Ben Cooper)



Trading Card Close-up: The Incredible Hulk (Topps)




Board Game of the Week: The Incredible Hulk (Milton Bradley)


Lunch Box of the Week: The Incredible Hulk



Theme Song of the Week: The Incredible Hulk (1978 - 1981)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Sky Pirate" (January 26, 1966)


In “The Sky Pirate,” a human space pirate (with a robot parrot on his shoulder, no less), lands on the Robinsons’ planet, Priplanus, and begins to make trouble for the family. 

He captures Will (Bill Mumy) and holds him captive until John (Guy Williams) and Don (Mark Goddard) agree to repair his stolen alien ship for him.  

Soon, however, Will and the pirate become friends, and the man even has Will take “The Pirate’s Oath.”

As the Robinsons soon learn, the pirate, Alonzo P. Tucker (Albert Salmi), left Earth in 1876 -- when he was abducted by aliens  -- and he has been making his way in space ever since.  Although Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) is deathly afraid of him, Tucker proves his worth by confronting a strange blob creature from another world, and saving the Robinsons from it.

With his ship repaired, Tucker prepares to leave the Robinsons, and a heart-broken Will behind…




One of the absolute weakest entries in the canon thus far, “The Sky Pirate” is an eminently forgettable and disposable installment of Lost in Space. 

Nothing about the episode makes much sense, and the emotional connection the writer and director hope to forge between Tucker and Will isn’t expressed well, or in a fashion that gives the last act any emotional heft or importance. There’s sort of a “boy’s adventure” vibe to the enterprise, as Will dreams of being a pirate, but sees his hopes squashed.



For me, this is just too silly to contemplate.  A couple of episodes back, “Return from Outer Space” featured Will desperate to get back to his family, even while he was safe on Earth.  And in “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension,” he wept about leaving them behind while he navigated an alien ship.

Now he’s just going to up and leave the other Robinsons to travel through space as a pirate?  With some guy he just met?

Pretty much all the negative comments people make about Lost in Space are actually true of this episode. 

Dr. Smith is a scene-stealing fool (and now he’s afraid of pirates, too?), a visitor comes to the planet but doesn’t help the Robinsons escape their plight (though his ship is big enough, certainly to house Will and Penny…) and all the drama arises when one of the children, in this case Will, is ostensibly endangered. The whole thing is like a catalog of Lost in Space clichés.  It’s essentially a weird re-do of (the superior) “Welcome, Stranger.”



I have so many questions about this episode, and I think they are all somewhat indicative of the fact that no one working behind-the-scenes on the series was paying close attention to continuity, at least no on a regular basis.

For example, we learned a few weeks back, in “Return from Outer Space” that the Robinsons are stranded on Priplanus.  Here, Will says explicitly that he doesn’t know what planet they are marooned on. 

Similarly, Alonzo demands cigars from the Robinsons. Are cigars standard-issue on Earth spaceships in 1997?  After all this time on the planet (the year is 1998, according to this episode…) the Robinsons haven’t smoked them?

And why did the aliens abduct Alonzo in the first place? Why hasn’t he attempted to return to Earth?  

Why does he take on the dress and appearance of a terrestrial, 19th century pirate?

Why does Tucker believe that John and Don can repair an alien spaceship, considering they have less experience with than he does…and he’s the pilot?

The deeper you dig into “The Sky Pirate,” the more you see it just doesn’t hold together. It’s silly and inconsequential, and adds nothing to the overall mythos of the series.

Still, Alonzo gets at least one thing right. He tells the Robinsons that they should “really do something” about Dr. Smith.  Unfortunately, they don’t act on his eminently-reasonable advice.


Next week, a marginally-better segment “Ghost in Space.”

Cult-Movie Review: Contagion (2011)


I find few horror movie “monsters” more frightening than the virus or disease epidemic. I suppose this is so because of the unpleasant reality underlining this particular boogeyman. 

Less than a hundred years ago, in 1918, for example, the flu pandemic killed millions of people, some three-to-five percent of the human population. 

And in recent years we have all watched with horror -- and then relief -- as SARS, H1N1 and Ebola burned out before doing real damage to our communities and our families.

In the tradition of efforts such as The Andromeda Strain (1972), and Outbreak (1995), Steve Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) depicts a terrifying scenario in which a new “bug,” originating in Hong Kong, threatens the future itself.

Unlike those aforementioned films, however -- which are largely set in isolated, quarantined towns or laboratories -- Contagion attempts to paint a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional picture of a pandemic.

The film depicts the spread of the disease globally, and gazes at the responses by the medical community, various governments, the media, average people, and so forth.  The film’s events span 130 or so days of the pandemic, and as that time passes, viewers witness the break-down of infra-structure and civilization, and the rise of paranoia and hatred. 

Soderbergh is especially good at conveying the details of this collapse in imagery. As the film progresses, we see ever more garbage lining the streets, but nobody ever explicitly comments on it. The visual tells the story: order is breaking down. 

Contagion features a large, diverse, ensemble cast, multiple locations, and a sense of accelerating, relentless inevitability. Again and again, we watch as an effort to stop the spread of the pandemic fails, and as scientists analytically predict how many people will die, per day, from exposure and infection.  

The movie is grim, and yet not exploitative (save for one shot of Gwyneth Paltrow’s face during an autopsy).  In short, this is a "what if" scenario brought to life with intelligence, reason, and restraint. 

Unlike many films of this type, Contagion doesn’t end with the fall of man, the destruction of civilization, or doomsday, but rather with the long, difficult crawl back from the precipice.  And it has no illusions-- or cynicism, for that matter -- about human nature, either.  Contagion characterizes even its strongest, most heroic characters as fallible humans who, above all else, seek to help and preserve their own families.  In these men and women, we can see ourselves, and that’s the movie’s point, I suppose.  

Contagion succeeds not just because it is driving and riveting, but because it all seem so plausibly imagined and rendered.  There but for the grace of God go we...



“Don’t want to catch a cold…”

A corporate employee and family woman, Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), returns home to Minneapolis from a trip to Hong Kong, with a lay-over in Chicago. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is shocked when an apparent cold turns into something much worse, and Beth dies in the hospital, along with his step-son, Carl. 

At the same time, across the globe, others begin to die from this mystery illness, including a bus rider in Japan, and a woman in London. Like Beth, they all seem to have traveled from Hong Kong recently.

A blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), catches wind of the disease’s progression, and after being unable to interest a major newspaper in the story, begins reporting it online. He soon comes to believe that the Powers-that-Be are suppressing the truth about the illness, its spread, and even its cure.

The head of the CDC in Atlanta, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) mobilizes resources as the disease -- designated MEV-1 -- spreads rapidly to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities. Cheever sends Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to manage the crisis in Minneapolis, but she is soon infected with the disease herself. 

As work frantically begins on a vaccine, civilization starts to break down. Funeral homes will no longer accept bodies of the infected dead, firemen stop reporting to put out fires, nurses strike, and garbage begins to line metropolitan streets.

The death toll climbs into the millions, and Krumwiede comes to believe that the CDC is stalling, rewarding friends of the Administration with lucrative contracts and vaccines, while the majority of the world’s population simply die…



“It’s the biggest shopping weekend of the year.”

Structurally and stylistically, Contagion looks much like a 1970s sci-fi tech thriller (The Andromeda Strain) and a disaster film.  The film hops from location to location, but always with a familiar face vetting the crisis so that there is a personal, individual element to the storytelling. Yet what works best about the story is not the grand canvas, but Soderbergh’s steadfast resistance to hysteria.  He makes a film with “real” characters bracing a terrifying, but again, reality-based situation, and doesn’t try to play it in an exploitative fashion.

One sign of the director’s even-handedness is seen in relation to Laurence Fishburne’s character, Cheever, at the CDC. Cheever is an effective leader, and is doing his best to save everyone.  But at a critical junction, he provides classified inside information to his fiancée, Aubrey (Sonia Lathaan), thus proving Krumwiede’s theory that those “in the know” are working to save their loved ones, while others -- lacking that personal connection -- are left to fend for themselves.  

How are we to judge this act?


Cheever is in no way a bad man, and one can easily understand why he makes the choice he does, but it is it fair?  Is it fair that those who are “connected” should get the benefit of insider information and privilege?  Probably not, but the reason that people push forward in the face of tremendous odds and an implacable enemy is also a personal one. They want to save those they love.


Cheever's "corruption" (or heroism, depending on your perspective) is just one avenue by which the film attempts to examine every aspect of an epidemic, from the political to the moral, to the personal.   
Another way involves Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a physician who is kidnapped in Hong Kong and held for ransom until the survivors of a decimated small village can be given the vaccine.  

Is it right to demand the vaccine using force and such terror tactics?  No, of course not.  

But the village has suffered an inordinate amount, and there is no guarantee that the vaccine will get to the survivors on time.  The villagers, and their representatives therefore act in an anti-social way to save the community and its very heritage. How this subplot ends is tragic, and deeply affects Dr. Orantes. Our sense of law and justice dictates that those who would use hostages and terror should not benefit from it, and yet there are innocent children in that village. Those who acted anti-socially were trying to save their families; the same way Cheever tried to save his.  

Another affecting story involves Damon's character. He is informed of his wife's death by a hospital doctor, and the news doesn't even register. He brought Beth into the hospital for the equivalent of the flu, and now she's dead.  Mitch doesn't even "hear" those words, and when forced to listen, grows understandably angry.  It's a very realistic reaction.

Yet the quality I admired about the film is that it proves that our system -- our civilization -- works. It doesn’t work all at once, and a lot of people die. But the mechanisms in place to help -- from the medical community to the political community to the military -- ultimately enact a procedure that is about as fair as is  humanly possible, given our limitations and problems as a species.

A National Vaccine Lottery is established so that the vaccine -- of limited quantities -- will go out to the people in a fair and democratic way.  And even Dr. Cheever attempts to make right his mistake f favoritism or nepotism by inoculating a young boy instead of himself.  

I once wrote that an act of self-preservation is that thing you do to protect yourself and your family. 

Civilization, by contrast, involves the act you undertake to save someone else’s family. Contagion understands and promotes this idea, and there are many characters in the film (including Dr. Mears) who put their lives on the line so that society, as a whole, will continue.  Their personal safety matters us much to them as ours does to us, and yet they take incredible risks to save other people's families.


On the other hand, the film features one unequivocal villain: the media.  Alan Krumwiede is a blogger who grows addicted to his “12 million hits” a day, and would rather sell paranoia than fact. He would rather put forward conspiracy theories than hard science.  

He is an opportunist who makes four million dollars peddling a cure -- Forsythia -- that doesn’t work, while people die. The movie is pretty hard on him, and rightly so. And though the admirable Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a CNN pundit, makes a cameo in Contagion, it would have been nice to see the media get the same even-handed treatment as the government, medical profession, and even political leaders.  


On the other hand, looking at the recent Ebola scare, I can't say the mainstream media comported itself particularly well. The disease was used as a political tool to invoke fear, basically, and win an election in November 2014. The ploy succeeded, but you wonder how some of those terror peddlers can continue to look themselves in the mirror after pandering to the fears of the uneducated and the uninformed.  

Unfortunately, the 24-hour cable-news stations have proven time and time again that, like Krumwiede, they are more interested in audience size than the public good. At some point, our nation will have to address this fact, head on and reform the media (hint: restore The Fairness Doctrine) or face the consequences.  But that's a story for another day.

Contagion starts with the sound of coughing -- a terrifying harbinger of the infection to come -- and closes in a kind of circular fashion.  After going from “Day 2” of the plague to “Day 132,” the movie ends with an effective coda…back at “Day 1.”  

This return to the beginning not only provides the answer to the mystery of Beth’s infection in Hong Kong, but reminds us that the whole cycle could start all over again, with another virus, and another pandemic. It happened in 1918.  It happened in the fictional world of this movie.  And the message of the filmmakers is...history could yet repeat itself.


What separates Contagion, finally, from so many “disease” sci-fi movies, is Soderbergh’s devotion to painting a realistic rather than hysterical picture. The characters in the film do their best to stop the march of the MEV-1 virus, but there are many failures, finally, because we all define “best” differently.  

When we do our best, is it what’s best for the village?  Best for our family?  Best for those we love and know?  Or best for the community at large?  

In the final analysis, are we about self-preservation or about civilization?  

This is no small issue, especially today. The anti-vaxxers have decided that because of their irrational fear of the government and vaccines, they will "protect" their children by not vaccinating them. Unfortunately, they are doing the opposite, and worse, endangering other families and children as a result of their irresponsibility. Under the guise of  individual "liberty," they are actually being extremely selfish.  They are thinking not about the common good at all.

Contagion provides some terrifying thoughts on this paradigm, and artfully explores the idea that "fear" and selfishness" are every bit as dangerous to human civilization as the spread of a new, unknown virus.

20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of  Mars Attacks!  (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in...