The outbreak of viruses has been a subject touched upon at various times in recent years. In many ways it is the perfect subject material for the turn of the millennium; with the Cold War not quite so cold, as the looming figure of the former Soviet Union slowly melts from the glacier-like sub-zero frost of communism to the more West friendly room temperature of modern consumerist times. Cinema has gone through periods of having to reinvent the figure of doom, from monsters in outer space to foreign invaders and even interstellar warfare. Having introduced, and slain, every foe from Nazi Germany to Mars and beyond, the only novel place left to look for suitable adversaries in recent times has seemingly been in distinctly organic fields. Whether it be global warming, volcanoes erupting or suns extinguishing, the trend shows little signs of abating. With Pandemic we get to see how Japanese cinema depicts the danger of a similarly fresh threat - that of a killer virus.
Not exactly the newest of ideas granted, but other than 1995's Outbreak, the majority of films using viruses as a basis for panic tend to feature the infectious agents as plot devices that explain a devastating mutation, where in the second phase those affected become a greater threat - in essence zombie films with a foot note for the current climate of fear regarding super strains of such parasitic afflictions. What few have looked at is their possible spread and how society can hope to tackle them, especially from the mundanely simplistic hypothesis of humans merely getting ill rather than shifting into twisted flesh eaters. This is exactly the angle Pandemic looks to exploit and hopefully gain some kind of tension from, emblazoning its cover with the history of recent biological scares such as SARS and H1N1 and going on to ask the question of what could be next come 2011.
We're thrown straight into the mix; a prelude to the main plot shows men and women in biohazard suits busily trying to deal with the outbreak of Avian Influenza in a remote location of the Northern Philippines. No sooner have we been introduced to this deadly game of “catch the pigeon” than we are whisked away to Japan. The location is now the Emergency Room of a hospital in Izumino, on the outskirts of Tokyo where we are introduced to the key protagonist, Dr Tsuyoshi Matsuoka (Satoshi Tsumabuki). It is also here that we as viewers are rammed head on with the first of a cascade of clichés. Of all the ways in which to portray professionals in the sphere of medicine, perhaps the most hackneyed and overused is that of a young idealist who clearly wears his heart on his sleeve and cares almost too deeply for his patients. By placing the central figure of the piece into an all too familiar character blueprint it immediately begins to sway everything that revolves around him into the worrying territory of a medical TV series. Whether you loved or hated ER/Chicago Hope/Grey's Anatomy etc this ready made persona complete with overt temperament is never likely to be complex enough to carry a feature film without a truly inspired performance. Unfortunately, Satoshi Tsumabuki, though competent, is unable to evoke anything beyond the telegraphed and ankle deep level of emotion that the writing has tasked him with bringing to life - it doesn't help that he looks more like a boyband member thanks to his flicky hairstyle and vaguely androgynous face.
The introduction of the World Health Organisation official heading up the efforts to contain the virus, Eiko Kobayashi (Rei Dan) who also conveniently happens to have “history” with Matsuoka, doesn't help this feeling of narrative familiarity. There is a slight subtext, that which is present in any decent disaster movie, namely the “suits” entering the fray to wrestle power from those already on the scene or who have different ideas, but rather than this being used as a device to create friction, the unrest is all too quickly abated as the arguments between the two factions are never explained sufficiently to make the audience side with either to any great degree.
In the opening hour there is some much needed deviation from what could become a formulaic affair as the virus begins to spread. A 24-style clock counts down the time that has elapsed since the initial discovery of the illness and how the infection rate and death toll are rapidly rising. A suitably rhythmic score incorporating tight drums emulating a metronome/heartbeat is laid over these segments and actually, though an obvious choice, aids the sense of increasing tension. What also helps to divert from the medical drama/soap opera feel is the manner in which this new plague is depicted - far from a restrained depiction of illness, the characters who are unfortunate enough to contract this uber-virus suffer fever, bleeding from the eyes and cough up claret like a child endeavouring to drink Ribena whilst hanging upside down. The result is more than a little messy (though thankfully they never attempt to illustrate the listed symptom of diarrhoea) and helps distract the viewers from the attempts at emotional depth that are to be found in the more sterile interludes.
Once we hit the hour mark though things once again start to move back to the relatively unimaginative environs of the medical drama and relationships come to the fore. This move not only breaks the tension of what hinted at being a fast paced thriller but also manages to skip happily over thoughtful interplay and jump straight into the foetid pool that is poorly scripted melodrama. I don't consider myself a heartless individual or without the ability to empathise with screen personas, but I must admit to actually laughing more than once thanks to the heavy-handed nature of the supposed messages being delivered, particularly when death is at hand. It is the usual problem of the adage “less is more” being eschewed in favour of a paint-by-numbers approach to cinematic emotion.
There is still a relatively gripping race against time, but once that old chestnut of a medical drama conundrum, kind-hearted empathy vs cold clinical pragmatism, has been wheeled out there is little that can be done to divert this from typifying the phrase “run-of-the-mill”. There are a few interesting side characters, Tatsuya Fuji as aging virologist Professor Nishi adds a welcome zen-like philosophical outlook to this biological Armageddon, but the majority of the actors are not helped by the fact that they are tasked with depicting emotions via just their eyes due to the fact they are often garbed in biohazard suits or hospital face masks. The tragedy is that the more interesting characters, namely the two older mentor figures are not afforded a greater amount of screen time and once you note the pattern of likeability equalling tragedy you'll soon be playing a game of “spot the gonner”. In amongst the excessive 138 minute run time there is actually a fairly decent disaster movie trying to break free, but the bonds of melodrama prove too much for it to surmount and ultimately it gets dragged down into the clichéd bog of thoughtful last words and simplistic life lessons that would be better off simply sewn on cushions or put into greetings cards.
Our Review Ethos