When people scattered all over the world suddenly lose their sense of smell, scientists are baffled. It soon becomes a pandemic – and yet people learn to adapt to a life without smell. Then the other senses begin disappearing, one by one. In the middle of this strange, changing world, chef Michael (McGregor) and scientist Susan (Green) fall in love…
There are almost as many strains of the epidemic movie as there are strains of disease. Following in the footsteps of films as diverse as The Crazies, Outbreak, The Signal and the BBC TV drama Smallpox, October sees the release of two very different additions to the genre: Steven Soderbergh’s big-budget Contagion and the smaller-scale Perfect Sense.
David Mackenzie’s film is less a realistic examination of an outbreak of infectious disease (indeed, we don’t even know if it is a disease) as a metaphysical celebration of the realm of the senses. At times, it’s very reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness (and Fernando Meirelles’ underrated movie adaptation), especially when it eventually gets round to exploring the loss of sight. This is, however, a rather more optimistic portrayal of humanity; whereas Saramago and Meirelles focused on bleak themes such as power struggles, the commodification of sex and the rapid crumbling of civilisation, Mackenzie and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson explore how people readily adapt as their senses are taken away one by one, and ultimately how love transcends everything. It sounds trite, but there are some effective scenes, whether it’s Michael and his team making their food spicier to attract diners who can’t taste, or the way Michael and Susan chew on soap to stimulate each other (it’s less weird than it sounds).
Only in the final third does panic really set in, at which point we get a convincing sense of a society spiralling into chaos (some of which inevitably reflects recent TV footage of the UK riots). Mackenzie makes a token effort to show the effects of the disease in Asia, Africa and South America, though they’re too brief to make much of an impact.
McGregor and Green make for convincing romantic leads, the former charming and flirtatious, the latter steely and brooding, though there’s nothing especially interesting about the characters themselves. The script sometimes borders on the pretentious, especially during the horrible voiceovers, but there are enough thoughtful moments to make this a worthwhile addition to an over-subscribed genre.
The film’s original title of The Last Word was mildly preferable to the cringey punning title it ended up being laboured with. Matt McAllister
Quietly affecting, if ocassionally self-important, epidemic drama.