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by Kathi Maio

IT'S A SMALL (SICK) WORLD—BUT LOVE STILL MAKES IT GO ROUND


ALTHOUGH the Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of it in the language back in the thirties and forties, the use of the buzz-term "globalization" has grown exponentially over the past decade or so. The word is so often dropped into sentences, in so many contexts, that it is often unclear what is meant by it. But, whatever it is, it is rarely good.

Back in the days when "multinational corporation" was a designation of admiration, such a term might have had a more positive spin. If not summoning images of Disney animatronic puppet tykes from around the globe chiming along with a chorus of "It's a Small World," it might have at least encouraged us to think in sentimental terms of that iconic image, taken from space, of our shared blue planet.

These days, globalization makes us think of much more sinister associations, like U.S. tobacco companies, faced with dwindling American profits, pushing cigarettes on children in Indonesia (a story I've seen on at least three different news shows), or Islamic terrorists bringing their anti-Western fury to New York, Madrid, and London, or the fact that economic turmoil in a small nation like Greece or devious banking practices on Wall Street could leave the intertwined economies of this entire Earth teetering on the abyss for years at a time.

Oh, and then there's that other worldwide threat—global viral pandemic. That's a danger that has been around ever since a rat could hop a ride on a wooden ship. And the looming centenary of the "Spanish" Influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 that strafed much of the world, resulting in somewhere between twenty and forty million deaths, should remind us that a high-tech world is not necessary to spread disease in a high-impact manner. Still, now that business travelers and just plain folks can hop continents in a few hours every day of the year, opportunistic viruses have a much better chance at...globalization.

Science fiction films about contemporary and futuristic plagues have been many and varied over the years. Zombie and vampire films qualify, of course, but even if you eliminate the creature-feature subcategory (including this past summer's popular popcorn pleaser, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), you are left with a good number of movies about pandemics.

They range from films with a space connection (like 1971's The Andromeda Strain) to ones that do the whole post-apocalyptic thing with a flourish. An extravagantly violent and kooky example of the latter is 2008's Doomsday (written and directed by Neil Marshall). Although nominally about a "Reaper Virus" that spreads so quickly through Glasgow that Scotland is walled up and left to die, the film is primarily an excuse to rip off a handful of earlier films with enthusiastic abandon.

Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who was the last Scot to get out alive as a wee lassie, has now grown into a tough-as-nails police officer sent back to the hot zone highlands to find a cure for the virus that has reemerged to devastate London. Unlike most of her special ops team, who die in rapid and gruesome succession throughout the film, she does what she sets out to do. And along the way, she violently traverses a bloodthirsty wasteland that mixes elements of Road Warrior, Braveheart-cum-Robin Hood, and a large dose of the Resident Evil franchise.

Doomsday is an all-action, no-science thriller; the type of pandemic flick we have generally come to expect. That is, it depicts the kind of post-apocalypse where society devolves into cannibalistic anarchy but dancing babes still have ample supplies of leather thongs and fishnet stockings! However, there are a few films that have been produced since the days that AIDS/HIV, EBOV, SARS, and other scary acronyms entered our vocabulary, that have aimed for more realism.

Outbreak (1995), directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool, is the most significant example of this approach. An Ebola-like, African-born virus dubbed Motaba, first discovered and mercilessly eradicated in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), reemerges and mutates into a more contagious form in a little town in California. The Army is called in to isolate the town, and epidemiologists from the United States Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USARIID) are called in to isolate the disease and find a cure. The team is led by Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman—not known for his military, scientist, or action-hero roles) and it includes hot-shot virologists played by Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Also present is Daniels's ex-wife and fellow-scientist, Robby Keough (Rene Russo), now of the CDC.

Although Petersen and his writers try to create a believable medical drama, they are also afraid that the audience will turn off if they don't keep things exciting and emotionally appealing. So the plot includes a darling blond moppet who thinks that the host monkey that started the disaster is a new-found pet as well as a dastardly military villain (played well by Donald Sutherland) who views such diseases as opportunities to create new bio-weapons. There are touching death scenes, secret White House meetings, and even a good bit of derring-do—as when Dustin's and Cuba's characters, in a tiny helicopter, lead larger combat choppers on a deep woods chase and later confront (midair) the pilots assigned to bomb that stricken California village.

Outbreak isn't a terrible film, but it doesn't trust that relative realism has enough power to hook and hold a movie audience. So it inflates the action and cheats the science (as when Cuba Gooding's character produces a cure within about a half hour, once he has the carrier monkey in hand). In the end, even the presence of Morgan Freeman as a conflicted General can't save the film from being overblown and woefully ordinary.

Similar fates have befallen the other films in recent years—mostly low-budget affairs and TV movies and mini-series like Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America (2006) and Pandemic (2007)—that attempted to tackle serious and inherently dramatic material with too much cheap pathos and sensationalism.

Fear-mongering as art and entertainment is a delicate matter. And previous films have taken a rather ham-fisted approach to their efforts. So I am happy to say that in the recent film, Contagion, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has made excellent use of his science and medical consultants (like Columbia University's Dr. Ian Lipkin) to create an all-too-credible zoonotic virus transmitted from fruit bats to pigs and hence to humans, clearly based on the Nipah (NiV), which is still a matter of concern, and which was identified during initial outbreaks in Malaysia and Singapore a decade ago.

But using a believable disease does not guarantee that the film that details its outbreak will be both plausible and gripping. On this score, it helps to have a director like Steven Soderbergh at the helm. Soderbergh has long exhibited a talent, in a great variety of genres, to layer characters and storylines into a cohesive and fast-paced final product.

In the case of Contagion, his story starts with a business trip to China by a marketing executive named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) who meets with and socializes with clients and then heads home to Minnesota with a stopover in Chicago for a bit of hanky-panky. Regrettably, for many of the people with whom she comes in contact, she is "patient zero" in a deadly worldwide viral outbreak that will later be identified as MEV-1. Through a trail of infection left on fomites like credit cards, casino chips, phones, files and airport bar peanuts—feeling paranoid yet?—she starts a new plague that begins in Asia and the Midwest and soon spreads throughout the globe.

While a World Health Organization investigator, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), tries to track the disease's origins in China, other scientists like the CDC's Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) work to identify, replicate, and rapidly develop a vaccine in Atlanta, and a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), helps to coordinate with local bureaucrats to respond to the crisis. While the scientists—who are clearly the collective heroes of this tale—fight to save lives, the fate of the common man is reflected in the experience of Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), the first victim's widower. Naturally immune to the virus, but unsure that his teenaged daughter is equally safe, he experiences all the fear and anxiety of an up-close pandemic, along with the social crises of a crippled economy, food shortages, and a Middle America that teeters on the edge of violent chaos.

Although the filmmakers certainly make use of the life and death struggles of their story, they do so with a kind of naturalism that renders the spiraling crisis even more chilling. The performances are equally restrained and natural, making the fear of the populace even more palpable, and the calm bravery of the scientists putting themselves at risk even nobler.

A word about heroes and villains seems appropriate here, as Burns and Soderbergh avoid the obvious in this regard, as well. In Outbreak (and even The Andromeda Strain), the military plays a key role, one that is more than a little ominous. In Contagion, the military is in the background as keepers of order, and there is a seldom-seen Rear Admiral played—in little more than a cameo—by Bryan Cranston, who seems to have an imprecisely defined supervisory role. But the Military Industrial Complex is seemingly beside the point of the movie. Here, lab virologists and field scientists—career public health workers, all—are the unassuming heroes of the tale. No one hunts monkeys or tears around in a helicopter, and no assault weapons or martial arts are wielded at any time. But the bravery of Drs. Mears, Hextall, and Orantes shines throughout the movie.

And the villain of the piece? He is equally surprising: a grasping blogger improbably named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). The character at first seems like a well-intentioned conspiracy theorist, suspicious about health risks and government cover-ups—and understandably so! But eventually he is exposed as a fame whore more interested in a big score than in public health...or even the well-being of a pregnant friend.

Contagion, in addition to being one heck of a public service announcement in support of hand-washing, can be viewed as a dire prediction of a global pandemic that is, in one form or another, very likely to happen. It is nonetheless a surprisingly hopeful and entertaining movie. And at a time when anti-government rhetoric is everywhere, it is actually pro-bureaucrat. (Imagine!) The movie also makes the point, briefly and with enough subtlety that many viewers will miss it, that we humans are not perhaps entirely innocent victims when a viral scourge sweeps through our populations. Near the end, the film shows the seminal moment in the outbreak: A giant piece of land-moving equipment, sporting the logo of the conglomerate poor Mrs. Emhoff worked for, is seen tearing apart a Chinese jungle. A flying fox flaps away and takes shelter in a hog barn. And so it begins.

Globalization can be a fearsome thing.

It can be a diverting one, too—as another film I'd like to note briefly, Love in Space, plainly illustrates. Made in China, in Mandarin, the film is yet another example of the Chinese beating us at our own game. At a time when what passes for romantic comedy in Hollywood is all cynical sex farce or a scatological raunch fest, Love in Space is a chaste, charming, utterly retro version of a classic ensemble rom-com.

Widow Mary (Xu Fan) worries about her three grown daughters, none of whom have found the right fella. Young Peony (Angelababy) is a successful actress, famed for her bad acting. Lily (Gwei Lun Mei) is supposed to be studying art in Sydney. But a bad break-up has left her an OCD clean freak, unable to cope with the messiness of paints. (She vacuums and scrubs in the night and wears latex gloves much of the time—but on the bright side, she's well-prepared for a coming pandemic!) Meanwhile, eldest daughter Rose (René Liu), who is an astronaut, is currently on a space mission with none other than her former boyfriend.

Since this is a throwback of a movie, you will not be surprised to learn that the germophobe falls in love with a garbage man, that the bad actress gets real with a struggling writer and watermelon vendor, and that our brave astronaut re-connects with her long-lost love while floating around in a space station. Even dear mom gets a second chance at love by the time the credits roll.

Co-directors Wing Shya and Tony Chan clearly mean to make a cheerful and colorful valentine of a movie, and they succeed admirably. There is absolutely nothing realistic about this film. And it's not even particularly original. (It may, in fact, leave you digging through your old VHS tapes to re-watch Ang Lee's 1994 delight, Eat Drink Man Woman.)

But if you want the perfect antidote to more serious fare like Contagion, or you'd like proof that the Chinese admire our popular culture formulas and know how to replicate them with their own distinctive panache, then seek this movie out. Love in Space is a crosscultural diversion of the first order.

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