Frankly, humanity takes a big beating most weekends at the movies. I’m not talking about the kind of beating you’ll see in the new Tom Hardy sad-sack beefcake epic Warrior, but the kind of beating that leaves society in shambles and produces thousands upon thousands of interchangeable corpses.
But rarely do each week’s new movies take the time out to focus on humanity losing its will to survive right here in Minnesota. Which makes Contagion a perfectly dangerous way to spend one of the last few great weather weekends in the Twin Cities before it all goes to hell for about nine months.
Steven Soderbergh’s po-faced disaster movie updates the template he utilized in 2000’s Traffic, with scores of stars all set up like globetrotting chess pieces in services of one common theme. In Traffic, the democratizing factor was the drug war. In Contagion, it’s the new Black Death.
Not that it’s a spoiler alert thanks to the prominence of her demise in the movie previews, but Gwyneth Paltrow gets her Janet Leigh on as the early-exiting Beth Emhoff, a Minneapolis businesswoman who, after a dizzying night of martinis in a Macau casino, wakes up a different sort of dizzy.
Within a matter of hours, she jets home in snowy Minneapolis and drops dead. Well, actually she convulses dead, but only moderately. Soderbergh isn’t aiming for grisly, pus-puking effects, but rather a creepily mundane sort of affliction.
Also, he’s notably as interested (if not more) in examining how information currently spreads as he is in tracking germs and spores. Jude Law plays a blogger — writing, as Elliot Gould winningly snipes, “graffiti with punctuation” — who immediately latches onto the epidemic when he sees video of one of the first casualties on the other end of the Pacific Rim collapsing dead on a bus.
When he’s rebuffed by the San Francisco Chronicle to develop his findings into a story, he panders to the lowest common denominator and racks up unique views as bodies start piling up.
Meanwhile, agents and scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization race to contain what clearly has a hair-raisingly swift transmission rate. Kate Winslet’s CDC rep is dispatched to Minneapolis, where she comes up against some starkly un-Minnesota Nice Minnesota Department of Health officials while trying to set up triage at the Armory.
Meanwhile, Matt Damon’s Mitch Emhoff mourns the loss of not only his wife Beth but their young son as well. As unofficial death tolls around the world escalate into rumored tens of millions, we mainly see society unravel from his point of view.
(One note: Though Minneapolis is thereby the setting for roughly one-quarter of the film’s running time, don’t expect any gratuitous expositional shots of our skyline. The movie was actually filmed in Illinois, not here. Still, local audiences will probably get a few laughs when Winslet tries to track various disease carriers to, say, Lyndale and Lake.)
Contagion, like Traffic, can be frustratingly uneven thanks to its 12-ring circus structural organization, though it’s never downright boring (as Traffic often was). It oddly lacks both depth and scope befitting its catastrophic subject matter, but maybe that’s the point. In our insular world of blogs and voicemail, maybe Soderbergh’s suggesting a plague today would hit a populace that’s already forgotten how to live together. Or maybe he’s just working on a budget.
The end of the world on a smaller but far more intense scale comes in this weekend’s big sleeper, Attack the Block.
Pitched somewhere between Super 8 and District 9, the entirety of Block takes place on a pitch black night. As fireworks go off in the sky, a small meteorite crashes into a car that just happens to be parked near where five teen boys are holding up a young nurse. From the wreckage leaps a hairless, thick-limbed fang sausage the size of a pit bull.
The boys corner and kill it for sport, and bring their prize back to their imposing block of flats, straight up to Hi-Hatz, the drug lord and self-proclaimed owner of the block.
Their intention is to show they’re hard enough to roll with Mr. Hatz’ crew. Their consequence is summoning an entire army of far bigger, far hairier, far less defenseless aliens from the skies. Before you can say “bruv,” the entire building is almost entirely surrounded by them, and the gang of five, their girls, the drug lords, the violated nurse (who, as it turns out, also lives in the same building) and two foul-mouthed 8-year-olds wielding Super Soakers are all forced to do battle with the creatures and their glowing maws.
And all without any notable help from the police.
Attack the Block was produced prior to this summer’s rioting in London, but it’s impossible to miss the connective tissue of explosive discontent, especially when, by the end, the movie’s heroes are being carted away by the clueless bobbies.
Fueled by anger, youth and a pounding industrial soundtrack from, in part, Basement Jaxx, Attack the Block is fresh, frenetic sci-fi with real teeth.