Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!

(2014) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Doc Shaw, Lee Ross, Keir O’Donnell, Kevin Rankin, Jocko Sims, Mustafa Harris, Deneen Tyler. Directed by Matt Reeves

As we can see by the events taking place on the Gaza Strip, two separate cultures in the same place have a difficult time coexisting. Each suspicious of the other, neither truly listening or trying to live in peace, there are always elements within that push for the complete annihilation of the other. Can you imagine how much worse it would be if the two cultures weren’t even the same species? Add into the mix that one of those cultures has been decimated by plague and war and blames the other for it and you have a powderkeg waiting to explode.

But that’s just the situation in Northern California. A ragtag human colony has gained a foothold in the ruined city of San Francisco. Led by Dreyfus (Oldman), his right hand man Malcolm (Clarke) sets into the Muir Woods of Marin County to see if they can reroute the power lines leading from a hydroelectric dam to go South instead of North and thus keep the power on in the human colony whose own generators are beginning to fail. However, his lone hydroelectric engineer Carver (Acevedo) runs into a pair of apes in the woods and shoots one of them, wounding him.

What Carver doesn’t know is that this is the colony of apes led by Caesar (Serkis), the genetically enhanced ape who has used the same drug that caused the end of mankind to enhance the intelligence of several of his fellow apes. They are beginning to learn to talk and have created a peaceful arboreal society in the woods. Caesar is none to pleased about it and orders the humans to go which they do posthaste.

Licking their wounds back at the colony, Dreyfus and Malcolm discuss the situation. They need that power. There are no other options. The apes however have followed the humans back home and Caesar, on horseback, informs the humans that they aren’t welcome in ape territory. They then return the backpack of Malcolm’s son Alexander (Smit-McPhee) who had dropped it in the chaos following their unexpected encounter.

Knowing that the survival of their colony depends on that power, Malcolm heads back to the woods accompanied by Carver, Malcolm’s girlfriend Ellie (Russell) who is a nurse, Alexander, Foster (Eyez) and Kemp (Murciano). Malcolm asks to speak to Caesar and plead the case of the humans. When Caesar agrees to let the humans do their human work, it arouses the ire of Koba (Kebbell), an ape who had spent much of the first part of his life in labs being experimented upon by human researchers. His hatred for humans is pathological and he means to wipe them out and remove their menace from the apes lives forever.

For his part, Carver hates the apes and blames them for the Simian flu (although the flu was created by human scientists) that wiped out the majority of the human race. He doesn’t trust the apes as far as he can throw them and as it turns out. Koba feels the same way about the humans  and as it turns out, they’re both right – Koba decides to see what the humans are up to in the city and discovers they have a large cache of guns and are testing them out. He thinks they’re planning an assault on the apes camp. Koba decides to enact a plan which is basically a “get them before they can get you” kind of thing and the fragile peace between the apes and humans are put in jeopardy and conflict between the two colonies becomes inevitable. Can either race survive a war?

This can be considered something of a parable, particularly in light of what’s going on between the Israelis and Palestinians although something tells me that it wasn’t initially meant that way. However, whether you choose to view the film that way or not, this is rip-roaring entertainment with maybe the best CGI for any film ever.

Let me explain that last sentence. The apes are motion capture with human actors supplying movement and voices. There are also other CGI animals including bears and horses. Every last one of these animals looks real and natural. Each of the characters have scars and faces that are recognizable. If you thought the make-up for the original Planet of the Apes franchise was groundbreaking, so too is the motion capture here. It’s bloody amazing.

Clarke, an Australian actor who has mostly done supporting roles in films like White House Down and Rabbit-Proof Fence, is likely best-known in the States for his work in the Showtime series Brotherhood. He proves himself a fairly able lead although whether or not that will translate into high profile roles in the future is somewhat ambiguous. He takes a backseat to Serkis whose powerful portrayal of Caesar reminds us that there is nobody better at motion capture in the business.

The eventual outcome of the story is pretty much a foregone conclusion which does make the movie a bit predictable. Some have groused that the Apes during the battle sequence seem to take to the guns a bit too easily but I disagree. They are far from expert marksmen and mostly shoot wildly when they shoot at all. When the clips are empty, they don’t know how to reload. Mostly, it is their sheer numbers and superior physical strength that makes them formidable.

At the end of the day, while the movie may not be perfect it is certainly one of the more entertaining summer movies of a disappointing season. It is likely to take its place as one of the biggest box office winners of the year, although it’s too early to tell if the numbers it got in its first week will be sustained until the beginning of August when Guardians of the Galaxy is likely to make a solid run. But until then, I can wholeheartedly recommend this as a good choice for a movie night out for just about anyone.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe some of the best CGI effects ever. Compelling story. Serkis does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense and occasionally brutal violence. A couple of instances of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reeves gave Keri Russell her first big break by casting her in the lead role of his TV show Felicity.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Kong

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snowpiercer

Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

Meek’s Cutoff


How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

(2010) Western (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux. Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Travelling from East to West in the mid-19th Century wasn’t something undertaken lightly. Prior to the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the only ways to get from the east to the west was by ship around Cape Horn in South America all the way back up to San Francisco; it was a perilous journey in which ships frequently were wrecked on the treacherous passageway.

There was also the overland route on the Oregon Trail which was just as arduous and nearly as lethal. Settlers would pack up what provisions and goods as they could carry in their wagons (not all of which were Conestogas), hitched up their oxen and set off hoping their guide knew where he was going, which wasn’t always the case.

Guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) sure talked a good game – to hear him tell it, no man alive knew the Oregon Trail as well – but this two week journey has stretched into five with still no end in sight. Supplies are getting dangerously low and there has been no water in the drought-stricken west. There are only three families on this wagon train; Emily (Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Patton), Millie (Kazan) and Thomas Gately (Dano) and Glory (Henderson), Jimmy (Nelson) and William White (Huff). The women are skeptical of their guide’s ability to lead them to safety. The men are dithering and unwilling to stand up to the overbearing lout.

When the men capture a Cayuse Indian (Rondeaux) who has been shadowing them, they are eager to kill the native. However the women urge that he be spared and convinced to lead them to water. For once they get their way. Still, there is a good deal of mistrust; is the man leading them to water or into a trap? And will they find their way to their destination or will they all die out there in the wilderness?

Reichardt, best known for her edgy modern drama Wendy and Lucy (which also starred Williams) tackles one of the American cinema’s most iconic genres and adds to it a uniquely feminine viewpoint (even though the script was written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, a man). Clearly the strongest and staunchest of the settlers is Emily, although mores and custom of the day required her to take a back seat to her husband.

Williams, whose next role would net her an Oscar nomination, is wonderful here. She gives Emily a marvelous inner strength which the pioneer women certainly must have – and did – have. Williams is careful not to turn Emily into a 21st century woman in a 19th century milieu which is what some actresses might have been tempted to do; Emily is very much a product of her time. However that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a strong personality or a will to match.

The entire cast is actually quite strong and all of them seem to be authentic to their roles. There are no jarring out-of-place anachronisms, and even better, this doesn’t feel like a bunch of modern people playing at cowboys and Indians – this feels like real settlers, unsure of what to do, completely out of their element and terrified that they’re going to die.

The vast vistas that are both barren and beautiful add to that feeling of a bunch of small people in a very large wilderness – kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for capturing it onscreen. The result is a very intimate film on an epic scale, which is a hard feat to pull off.

However be warned that the pace is slow, maybe too slow. A lot of time is spent showing the settlers doing their day-to-day activities – grinding coffee, gathering wood, repairing wheels and so on, to the extent that you might feel like you’re sitting in a classroom. In fact, high school history teachers looking to give their students an idea of life on the Oregon Trail (and others like it) might want to arrange a screening of the movie for their classroom – it’s that informative.

The story progresses organically but slowly and much is left to interpretation. Audiences used to being led from point A to point Z with all the answers pointed out to them as they go along might find this frustrating. Still, it is one of the better Westerns to come along in the 21st century and those who love the genre will find much here to love – but traditionalists might find little here to love as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A very different Western. Strong performances throughout the cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a very contemplative pace. Framework is very bare-bones which may ask too much from audiences used to being spoonfed.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Meek Cutoff follows Bear Creek to the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $977,772 on a $2M production budget; it certainly didn’t make money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: September Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Perfect Storm

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Contagion


Contagion

How is it that Marion Cotillard can still look so hot while trying to appear concerned?

(2011) Medical Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demitri Martin, Brian J. O’Connor, Chin Han. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

From time to time, the human population of this planet has been culled from everything from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. It has been almost a century since our last plague; we’re about due for the next.

It takes just one person to start a plague. In this case, it’s Beth Emhoff (Paltrow). She has just returned home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong with a case of the flu. At first it’s just chalked up to jet lag, but she suddenly has a violent seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Within hours she is dead. On his way home from the hospital, her husband Mitch (Damon) is told his son is having a seizure. By the time he gets home, his son is already gone.

In the meantime, cases of the disease are sprouting up all over the place, from a bus in Tokyo to a small village in China to a home in Chicago. It seems that a pandemic is about to break out.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, personified by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) are mobilizing their forces, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to co-ordinate with Minnesota health officials while the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to Hong Kong which is apparently ground zero. Both women soon find themselves in unexpected situations with potentially deadly consequences.

As more and more people get sick, things begin to break down. There is looting and riots as people demand answers and a cure. Doctors Ally Hextall (Ehle), David Eisenberg (Martin) and Ian Sussman (Gould) work feverishly to find the cure for this insidious disease which is so far resisting all known treatment. Meanwhile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) seeks to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage, fueling the panic that is already just below the surface. Mitch Emhoff is holed up in his home with his daughter Jory (Jacoby-Heron), watching supplies dwindle and terrified that he will lose his only surviving family member to the disease as her persistent boyfriend Andrew (O’Connor) repeatedly tries to get together with her physically. Will a cure be found before civilization completely collapses?

Soderbergh has shown a deft hand with ensemble casts in the Oceans trilogy but here he winds up with too many characters. Too many plotlines to really keep straight, so some his stars (not all of whom survive the movie by the way) are given extremely short shrift while other plotlines seem to go nowhere.

What he does do well is capture the realism of the situation. The movie was made with the co-operation of the CDC and while I’m not sure what, if any, of the film was actually filmed in CDC facilities, you get the sense that if they weren’t the filmmakers at least were granted access so they could find reasonable facsimiles.

You also get a sense that this is the way things would really go down, with lots of conflicting information going out, political in-fighting and finger-pointing as well as heroics by front line personnel who are trying to care for the sick and protect the healthy, not to mention a shady few who stand to profit by the misery of millions (I’m sure insurance companies will make out like bandits and the right will blame it all on Obamacare).

The stars deliver for the most part, particularly Damon who has to run through a gauntlet of emotions from disbelief to grief to anger to fear throughout the course of this movie. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves, but he’s a much better actor than he is often given credit for and for those who need proof of that, they need go no farther than his performance here.

Cotillard is given little to do but look concerned and beautiful and does both beautifully. Winslet does well in her role as a field representative of the CDC who is well and truly over her head to a crazy extent. Law is nefarious and snake-smooth as the blogger with ulterior motives.

The plot here follows standard medical thriller format; the difference here is that there is more emphasis placed on the procedures than on the patients. That’s a double-edged sword in that it gives us a unique viewpoint, but we rarely get to connect to the suffering of those affected by the disease in one way or another.

The scenes that show the rapid breakdown of society are the ones that held my attention the most. Sure, the scenes of scientific research had their fascination as well but I tend to swing my attention more towards the human than the technological or the bureaucratic. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those sorts of scenes as I would have liked so the movie scored fewer points than it might have, but still plenty to recommend it to most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: All-star cast and a good sense of realism. Fascinating look at the breakdown of society as social services become impossible.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and not enough plot.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is rather disturbing and there are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon, Paltrow and Law last worked in the same film together in 1999 for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Law has no scenes with either Damon or Paltrow this time, however.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this at home; trust me, once you see this you won’t want to be within miles of another human being.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: I Don’t Know How She Does It