SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT. I don’t just tell you that Gwyneth Paltrow dies very early in the film (an encouraging trend, to be sure) but EVERY OTHER THING THAT HAPPENS.
This Stephen Soderbergh film (him from “Sex, Lies and Videotape, Kafka, Ocean’s Fourteen etc) is superficially about a global pandemic that goes, um, viral, after “batty meets piggy,” thanks to the depradations of a Big American Company. (In the final frames, we see, in flashback, a BAC bulldozer clearing a forest, thus rendering batty homeless. Batty squats a piggy farm. Piggy gets sick and… oh so it goes.) It’s a bit of karma that it is one of BAC’s functionaries (Gwyneth) who gets sick and – after shagging her former lover and then returning home to fatally infect her child but not her cuckcolded hubbie (Matt Damon) – dies in a fit (and her post-mortem scene echoes her head-in-a-box in Se7en – both lead to a bemused man saying “call somebody/everybody.” But I digress!)
The “deeper” them is about, IMHO, patriarchy challenged and only partially restored/modified.
There are five male – female relationships coded around paternal ‘care’ and its success or failure.
Primarily, Matt Damon must now look after his teenage daughter (in a scripting fuck-up she both is and isn’t Gwynnie’s daughter). Teen daughter has hormones, and there’s a boy she likes who is courting her. But the standard Father’s Panic At Daughter Getting Laid is worsened by the fear that bodily fluids may spell, well, death.
In the final substantive scene, we see him weep over his dead wife and then come downstairs to see the Officially Safe boy and his daughter having a home-made Prom. She can symbolically leave the home (that’s what the Prom means, innit?), but that takes place in the home.
We’ve also got Larry (aka Laurence) Fishburne as the head of the Centre for Disease Control. He sends his ‘daughter’ (played very well by Kate Winslett) up to investigate Gwynnie’s death, and then can’t evacuate her when she gets sick. She ends up in a mass grave. Larry then bends (as in, breaks) the rules to advise his secret lover to get out of Chicago before a quarantine is enforced. To cover his tracks, he has to bend the rules some more to keep a witness quiet. The witness – a white janitor and a surrogate son – wants nothing more than a queue-jumping vaccine shot for his own son. It’s all getting very familiar, isn’t it?
Then there’s Jude Law, a bottom-feeding freelance journalist. He is unable to get his “scoop” about the epidemic into the mainstream press thanks to an uppity (female) editor. Said editor, pregnant, comes to him later for protection from the virus. He doesn’t/can’t protect her, and next you see her, she’s very dead.
Marion Cotillard plays a World Health Organisation investigator sent to Macau to track down the birth of the bug. She is kidnapped and used as a human shield/bargaining chip for the day when a vaccine is finally produced. Exchanged for a suitcase full of what turns out to be placebo, she flees back to her new friends, keen to warn them.
So, we have four cases here of men unable to “control” their women – the women suffer.
The final relationship – one that I managed to overlook while writing the first draft (!) of this review, is Jennifer Ehle as a workaholic scientist who gets one scene with her actual dad, a GP who has basically sacrificed himself. She saves the day, btw, after an early intervention by avuncular Elliot Gould.
In the end, a form of the old patriarchal order is restored. But things will Not Be The Same Again.