September 15, 2011

The central problem with any epidemic-based disaster movie is that labwork just isn’t that exciting.  Disaster movies revel in the initial destruction.  It’s the queasy thrill of seeing our everyday lives, our civilizations and societies, turned upside down in a spectacular fashion that draws us to them.  The almost built-in problem is peaking too early:  you’ve got to find a way to make everything post-cataclysm consistently interesting.  In 2012 they end up with ridiculous arks.  In Independence Day we get jet/spacecraft dogfights.  In The Poseidon Adventure, we follow the ragtag survivors through the bowels of the ship.  Watching someone crawl through torn metal just isn’t as exciting as watching a rogue wave flip a cruise liner.  Still, there are goals there.  In the case of an epidemic, the goal is to find a cure, which unfortunately involves labwork – or at least it should.  Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak used the absurd-but-very-achievable goal of finding the original carrier – a little monkey – and that would solve all the problems.  Even then, if you remember, that wasn’t enough.  Injecting people wasn’t a sufficient climax, so there had to be a ridiculous helicopter standoff.  Steven Soderberg’s Contagion has no interest in any of that.  It is billed as a thriller, but really it just wants to posit a scenario. 

That scenario involves the rapid spread of a new, particularly deadly virus that can be transmitted by touch.  A matter-of-factly ominous “Day 2” appears in the first shot, as Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) looks a bit ill in an airport.  She goes home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon) complaining of jetlag.  Before long she’s collapsed, foamed at the mouth, and pronounced dead at the hospital.  Her son – from a different marriage – dies soon after.  These events mimic similar ones happening in Hong Kong and Japan, and before long the CDC is involved, headed by Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) with the research being spearheaded by Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle).  Soon, the WHO is brought in and they send a doctor (Cotillard) to Hong Kong to locate the origin of the disease.  Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) is dispatched to Minneapolis to begin a program of containment.  Homeland Security gets involved.  Conspiracy-theorist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) starts spreading rumors on his website and begins pushing a particular homeopathic treatment.  There are, as you can tell, many threads, and as usual with these sorts of thing, not all are equal.  Some of these threads connect and then branch off and branch off, while other stays reasonably isolated.  As a consequence, some just don’t work that well, specifically Cotillard’s and Law’s storylines.

The rhythm is quick and unrelenting, but rarely in a way that builds to any kind of large crescendo.  There are tiny ups and downs scattered throughout, but the general thrust of the film is clinical.   The main desire is to present a plausible depiction of a nightmare scenario without ever descending into huge hysterics.  There is a general breakdown in society, especially in the quarantined areas.  Trash piles up on the streets, there are cases of rioting, and even some home invasions, but again, these are really just presented and not generally heightened for dramatic purposes.  It’s a series of cause-and-effect postulations.  There are a gaggle of throwaway lines suggesting the logistical nightmares we don’t even get to see, such as the question of whether the state or the federal government will pay for the quarantines, working out which companies are going to be responsible for the manufacture and distribution of any treatment, and the Chinese government’s unwillingness to take responsibility for being the origin.  The scope of the film is huge but it never feels big.  There are a lot of discussions in boardrooms and in labs, and aside from a military presence and some blockades; the societal disintegration is kept to the suburbs of Minneapolis or the streets of San Francisco.

It isn’t so clinical that it gets dull.  The snappy editing and propulsive electronic score by Cliff Martinez keeps things moving, giving the proceedings a befitting sense of urgency.  Early on there’s a great, but never in-your-face, emphasis on the touching of objects.  Later on, every stray cough becomes a brief, but real, cause for concern.  It never tips over into paranoia, though some of its characters might, and for that I think it deserves credit.  It also looks stunning, as Soderbergh clearly loving whatever version of the RED camera he is using.  The downside to the general approach is that the human element is often left by the wayside.  The higher-ups are worried, but always act professional and mannered, even when their actions aren’t.  It’s up to the actors to infuse the occasional scene with emotional undercurrent with which the general thrust of the film isn’t interested.  There are some small but effective moments, such as an ill colleague of Krumweide’s desperately pleading for a dose of the homeopathic cure, and Krumweide’s pathetic reaction because he knows the cure is a lie.  These are few and far between, however, as the picture is just not set up to accommodate much dwelling on the specific emotions of everyone hit by the crisis.

There are two scenes, however, that I think are worth singling out.  The first is Kate Winslet’s scene in her motel room, in which it dawns on her that she’s been infected, and the series of emotions she works through in a short amount of time is incredible.  The second is towards the end, and is probably the most conventionally dramatic or possibly sentimental, depending on your view.  Matt Damon allows his daughter to finally see her boyfriend after months of isolation, and he creates a personal prom in the living room.  They share a dance to U2’s “All I Want is You”, a poignantly sweet moment that recalled the scene in The Stand with Molly Ringwald and the besotted nerd listening to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”.  The true greatness of the moment in Contagion comes from Damon himself, who has just discovered his deceased wife’s camera and finally has the time to grieve for his loss.  It’s a powerful performance in a film that largely sidesteps such emotions.

It also achieves a clever narrative trick, for in viewing the last pictures she took we get a glimpse into what the film would deem Day 1, and we’re given enough evidence to work out for ourselves what might have started the pandemic.  Instead of ending on the scene, Soderbergh decides to go back and give us the play-by-play on the origin himself.  Leaving the coda out would probably have been more effective, but it also wouldn’t be true to the tone of the movie as a whole.  This is a film interested in logistics, and as such, it is somewhat distancing.  As expertly made and thoroughly enjoyable as it is, it is a film to be admired rather than loved.  Perhaps that sort of isolation is appropriate.


2 Responses to “Contagion”

  1. CMrok93 Says:

    Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. Nice review.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      That’s a great way of putting it. It does it wants to do very well, aside from a few sideplots, but perhaps there was something limiting in that initial idea.

      That said, I am wary of criticising a film for not being something it isn’t. I was listening to a podcast today where they discussed it, and one of the reviewers wished for a Rene Russo-like character from Outbreak…something to emotionally grab onto. That, I think, is a mistake because this film, in many ways, wants to be the anti-Outbreak.

      I think if there was a missed potential, for me, it would be in the deeper exploration of some of the political or PR aspects. Perhaps it should have focussed in on an element and really dug in rather than trying to deal with the huge scope it attempts.

      Still, it does what it does almost as well as I think it can be.

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