USA (105 mi) 2011 d: Steven Soderbergh
Perhaps an exaggerated comment on the SARS epidemic when people around the world were wearing surgical masks, where one recalls a World Diving Championship around 2003 taking place in Mexico City where spectators were urged “not” to attend due to the spreading epidemic, so the athletes performed before a worldwide television audience but also to a completely quiet and empty stadium, which was eerily spooky. Yes, this film features plenty of people in surgical masks, perhaps more than any other movie on record, but that’s only the backdrop to the story, which is the outbreak of a new deadly virus responsible for spreading a worldwide epidemic of such massive proportions that 1 out of every 12 humans on earth would perish within the first three months. Wow, what a bummer, you might think, but this is actually one of the better Soderbergh efforts in the past decade. Using a cast of thousands, not to mention four Oscar winners, the director has lined his film with familiar faces, where each is somehow affected by this deadly outbreak. Despite a surprisingly realistic script by Scott Z. Burns, that’s not the best of it, as Soderbergh opens his film with an amusing series of shots, each one filled with multiple clues on how a virus can spread, where the upbeat, heavily percussive electronic music has the feel of a processional march, where the audience is immediately pulled into the atmospheric mood through a clever intro. The astonishing music, easily the best thing in the film, is by Cliff Martinez, who also does the music in the much heralded, upcoming Nicolas Winding Refn film DRIVE (2011), which opens this week, but also TRAFFIC (2000) and THE LIMEY (1999), two of Soderbergh’s best films. The film is shot in digital by the director, but is suitable for IMAX theaters, designed to be blown up on a big screen, so the look of the film is high quality, where Soderbergh may be the digital era's leading proponent. Immediately, the director takes us on a journey around the world, counting down the days on the screen from the initial outbreak, showing cities with their accompanying population around the world where it is spreading the fastest. Like all the best works, what distinguishes this movie is a gorgeous opening and closing sequence, where unfortunately the middle is not nearly as memorable, subject to plenty of uneven moments.
Rather than list off the names of the cast, some of whom have humorous references because of what characters they play in other ventures, suffice it to say they just keep popping up onscreen, but as this is a disaster flick, don’t expect many of them to stick around for long. The fun is seeing how the horror will all play out, and in this, the director really has his hand on the stylish atmospheric feel, as this actually resembles a ZODIAC (2007) medical procedural, which unravels with near mathematical precision, as immediately the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are under siege to find the source of the problem and initiate a worldwide vaccine, a process that can takes months and years, but the death rate is too steep and the population is on the verge of panic. For this reason, the health department spokespersons remain calm, offer little new information, but attempt to project a rational and systematic approach on how to eradicate this problem. But as they initially make so little progress, inundated by the effects of one health disaster after another, they certainly don’t have much information to offer the public. Instead, this void is filled by the morally dubious world of Internet bloggers, where one doctor contemptuously utters, “Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation.” Nonetheless, rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet, which has the capacity to stir the public into a frenzy, where people lock themselves indoors to avoid contact with others, as that is the only surefire method to avoid infection. This leads to a mutiny of workers staying home, including police and fire departments, grocery stores, restaurants and shopping malls, not to mention healthcare workers, all of whom think their line of work in dealing with the public is a death sentence. Like a vision of the apocalypse, where looters and rioters roam the streets unimpeded and the legions of sick patients are housed in indoor warehouses or football stadiums, society all but collapses as there is no police presence, much like the actual disastrous experience from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005).
While there are many shown to have the best of intentions, where self sacrifice under these circumstances is more than a noble gesture, there are many more who continue to fall ill, or have sick family members who are desperate to do something, anything, to avoid becoming another statistic. Desperate times call for desperate measures, where kidnappings of prominent health officials may be a way to get medicine faster, as rumors are rampant that America is hording all the medicine. Drugs are the new currency, where pharmacies are routinely ransacked. Like any great disaster movie these days, the National Guard is ordered to secure the mayhem, accumulating more dead bodies faster than they can dig new graves. This is the same menacing atmosphere projected in the Danny Boyle zombie flick 28 DAYS LATER (2002), where the world is on the verge of destroying itself and there are precious few with the capacity to save it. And of course, no city or region wants to admit they are the source of the virus, as they would be the scourge of the world, forever associated with this epidemic, so there could be calculated lies and a series of well-planned cover ups to throw the investigation off track, which only means more lives lost, as time is literally running out. But in the world of medicine, you rarely ever see the individuals who work tirelessly behind the scenes to study the disease, understand how it operates in the human body, and sufficiently isolate it to find a cure. Few of us can picture the faces of these small scientific teams or individuals, as they work with little notoriety in highly secure laboratories, usually wearing protective suits that resemble what astronauts wore on their first trip to the moon. In this secretly confined but methodical world, they painstakingly experiment with trial and error, wait, and then measure the results, before starting the same process all over again until they find a positive result. For some, it will always come too late, for others it never comes at all, but for a few, especially those in the future, why wait for a disaster, as their lives and the kind of world they will live in will definitely be determined by the decisions we make today, making it clear that especially now, every day matters.