What would actually have happened if SARS had really taken hold and spread like wildfire across the world, with no antidote and the cause unidentified.
Director Steve Sonderbergh, takes the SARS epidemic and runs with it to create a worst case scenario, playing events out for real, with almost no glamour, gloss or usual Hollywood movie staples. The movie is very scary, not in a “jump at the cat” or “man in a mask with an axe” frightening, more along the lines of, this could happen and what might transpire if it did.
Sonderbergh’s one concession is to employ A-List actors, lots of them.
Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) is an ordinary family man who’s wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) travels a lot, returning suspiciously late from a business trip, she is taken unwell, very unwell.
Unknown to all, the seeds of disaster have already been planted and it is now only a matter of time, for air travel and modern life to carry out it’s deadly work.
The reaction of Mitch to his wife’s condition feels surprisingly real, ‘Yes, but can I see her now?” he asks.
If anyone is touted as heroes, then the staff of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) are the only candidates on display. Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) asks his investigative staff to go to great lengths to attempt to control the outbreak. Dr Mears (Winslet) dashes from one crisis to the next, hunting the source and placing herself in ever increasing danger.
Back at CDC Dr Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) works remotely with Dr Sussman (Ellitt Gould), to attempt to find an antidote. Monkey lovers should look away at this point.
The tension is cranked up well, there is a real feeling of events spiraling out of control as the thin veneer of civilization gradually and then very quickly, falls away. Would you wait in an orderly line in the hope of buying medicine that might help your family to survive. Not for long one suspects, not if your family’s lives truly depended on it. The truth is laid out quite simply, when such situations occur it is everyone for themselves, there are just not enough Police and Health staff to cope. Faced with their own family crisis, it is unlikely they would turn up for work in the first place.
A subplot involving an influential blogger/conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) appears tacked on and unnecessary. This introduces social commentary, painting large corporations as exploiting the crisis and takes a simplistic “all pharmaceuticals are bad” approach. This may at least be partially true but this is crudely drawn and coupled with Law’s dodgy accent, seems out of place. This together with the complicated family arrangement, step child, possible unfaithfulness, distracts from the main event and pulls the audience away from the central virus outbreak dilemma.
To exacerbate this further, a secondary subplot involving Dr Orantes (Marion Cotillard) working for the World Health Organisation, who is then kidnapped by a colleague and forced to assist a tiny local village, is again ancillary to the main story.
Perhaps director Steven Soderbergh did not believe the central story strand was strong enough to capture audiences imagination. Bearing in mind the strength of the story and acting, together with an audience willing to accept how real this could be, this is an incorrect assumption.
Of course, whether audiences want to be reminded just how easily millions of people could die during an outbreak with no antidote, is debatable. Box office numbers would suggest that fighting Robots and Vampires is infinitely more bankable and much less scary.
A thriller which provides a frightening glimpse into how events would actually unfold during a large worldwide virus outbreak.
With only minor concession to Hollywood glitz, this may have audiences vowing to never touch anything, ever again.