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Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America

Sony Pictures // Unrated // October 31, 2006
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted October 24, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Hey, kids! Remember the bird flu? Sure you do - it's what was going to Kill Us All just a few months ago. No, not tainted spinach. No, not racist Senatorial candidates from Virginia. Think all the way back to May. Every network and all the cable news channels went crazy over the thing, filling their news cycles with stories about how we're just one man-on-chicken incident away from having the disease wipe out all of humanity. You know, bird flu! And then, I dunno, some white girl went missing in Cabo or whatever, and the news people forgot all about it, and so did we.

Well, lucky for us, before the news cycle ended, ABC was kind enough to make a TV movie about a worst-case scenario. (Because, hey, more Americans get their irresponsible fear-mongering from ABC than from any other source.) They called it "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," because they wanted a title that was both TV movie-generic and patently absurd at the same time. They also aired it following of a series of reports aiming to educate the public about the facts regarding the possible pandemic and soothe fears stemming from baseless rumor and wild speculation… because irony is not lost on the American Broadcasting Company.

The film, written by Ron McGee (a veteran of ridiculous, wonderfully-titled TV movies, including "Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story," "Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back," and my favorite, "Atomic Twister") and directed by Richard Pearce (whose career has recently gone from great works like "A Family Thing" and "Leap of Faith" to TV duds like ABC's "South Pacific" remake), promises disaster movie-level insanity throughout, as we watch how one salesman's visit to China results in the end of civilization as we know it. Unaware that napkins handled by chicken farmers contain the deadliest of germs, our hapless sales rep returns to the States after a few days of handshaking and napkin using (both seen in extreme slo-mo close-up, with ominous music blaring all the way) and then drops dead inside a Wal-Mart-esque big box store. Within weeks, millions follow suit, although not all of them die while shopping for bulk containers of dog food.

True to its disaster movie roots, the outbreak is focused almost entirely on a small handful of individual stories: the New York nurse dedicated to her job and her soldier husband who supports her; the suburban family whose son may be dying and whose mother decides it's time to take action; the Virginia governor who mistakenly calls for quarantine in urban centers, resulting in mass riots; the heroic doctor from the Epidemic Intelligence Service (!) who has to deal with the Cabinet official in charge of the whole mess.

The weak characterizations, clumsy dialogue, iffy performances, and hackneyed situations all point to a movie that was rushed through production in record time in order to hit the airwaves before interest in the disease as a headline-grabber died down. (Only a few well-staged shots of mass hysteria and large-scale human suffering reveal any effort that went into the film; despite its countless flaws, we do at least get some sense of scope to the pandemic, thanks to a few scant images of overflowing hospitals and subway stations-turned-triage wards. Everything else? Quick, sloppy, and lifeless.) The script goes out of its way to appear topical: a reference to Hurricane Katrina is included merely to let viewers know that this movie is all new and shiny.

Of course, it should be mentioned that by focusing entirely on the worst case scenario, the filmmakers do nothing at all for the public good, inducing panic when it should be educating. Although Stacy Keach's government goon character gets to work in a multitude facts and figures into even his most casual lines of dialogue that he winds up sounding like a character on loan from Aaron Sorkin, there's a depressing lack of actual information here. In fact, this becomes an unintentional running gag: every time there's a scene of a government official or news anchor explaining how to properly prevent the disease, we're always either cutting in right at the end of the speech or cutting away just as it starts, leaving those at home without a single ounce of actual useful knowledge, except for "wash your hands."

But then, "Fatal Contact" wasn't designed to educate. It was designed to induce just enough panic to keep people tuning in to the evening news, just to see if the bird flu had indeed crossed over to humans, thus wiping us out by the millions. (It still hasn't, by the way. Not that the media cares.)

And so, months after the bird flu has vanished from the news cycle like so many almost-apocalypses before it, we can watch "Fatal Contact" with a strange mix of curiosity and embarrassment. What could be seen as a time capsule of a brief point in our very long year is instead just another goofy movie-of-the-week in which B level stars run around and try to avoid the mounting dangers from whatever it is that will Kill Us All this time. Personally, I prefer to fear the Atomic Twister.



The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) image is just above standard broadcast quality, which is to say, sharp enough to get by without actually impressing. The film was also broadcast in hi-def (hence the widescreen format), yet fails to take advantage of it.


The Dolby 5.1 mix is moderately restrained yet quite clear. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.


None, except for trailers for "The Da Vinci Code," "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili," and "Stephen King Presents: Kingdom Hospital," which has to be the oddest random sampling of previews Sony has yet to toss our way.

Final Thoughts

Unless you're in the mood for some low-rent TV movie cheese (They're shaking hands! We're all going to DIE!!!!!) or want something to provide a few fond memories of a forgotten news story, just Skip It.
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