Complaining All The Time: Contagion (2011)

17 Apr

Continuing the “vomiting up old stuff I wrote months ago” trend I’ve begun here, my next post will be a review of Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion that I wrote for my school’s student newspaper last September. It was a nifty little hard-sci-fi thriller and I liked it. Read on to find out why.

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Featuring Gwyneth Paltrow's head like you've never seen it before.

Sometimes I feel like Hollywood has given up on trying to scare us. Looking back on the thrillers and horror films of recent years, how many have legitimately given you the willies? And I don’t mean provoking a sharp intake of breath or making you jump in your seat a little; I’m talking about movies that leave you jittery, glancing over your shoulder and staring at the ceiling at night for hours or even days after the credits roll. Racking my memory for recent films that have even attempted this, the closest I can think of is this past summer’s amusing, if admittedly unnecessary Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and even there the doomsday scenario is fairly toothless, less an attempt at leaving viewers with an abiding unease about the potential unforeseen side effects of genetic experimentation than an excuse to bring the film to a point where a giant gorilla tackles a helicopter.

We, the media-consuming populace, have come a long way from the folks who mistook Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama for a live broadcast of an alien invasion. We’ve become far more cynical, far more dubious of the relationship between media and reality. Ever since we “went postmodern” at some unspecified point in the 90s, we have demanded that the illusion-weavers at Hollywood either stay one step ahead of us, or go postmodern themselves. The latter option, postmodernism, has come to represent a sizable chunk of today’s films, particularly those aimed at young, media-savvy audiences: films that concede their filminess, positioning themselves as either cutesy and self-referential (e.g. Scott Pilgrim) or dour deconstructions of popular fantasies (e.g. The Dark Knight). What movies that acknowledge themselves as movies have in common is that they’re not in much of a position to scare us, because movies themselves aren’t really any scarier than the discs (or reels, or hard drives, or tapes, or whatever) they come on. The other option, staying one step ahead of the audience, seems to be considered a lost cause, not only because the propagation of social media and nerdy Internet humor sites have rendered it nearly impossible for even the slightest plot hole or scientific inaccuracy to go unnoticed, but because Hollywood has always been of the belief that reality isn’t very conducive to drama. Moviegoers want movies that feel real, they say, but they don’t actually want them to be too real. Reality is boring, right? That’s why people go to the movies.

I bring all this up because Steven Soderbergh, perhaps uniquely among big-budget Hollywood filmmakers, professes to be of the belief that reality actually doesn’t need too much embellishment to be exciting. With his new bio-thriller Contagion (the first in his “final tour” of several films stretching into next year before his early retirement from directing to pursue a career as a painter), Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have set out to make a film about a deadly pandemic with the honest-to-goodness mission to scare the pants off of their collective audience, and have decided that the best way to go about doing so is to be as unsparingly honest as possible. Real science and real life, they figured, are strange and fascinating enough that flights of fancy aren’t needed to turn them into good movie material. What this philosophy has produced is a taut, science-fact thriller that will, without fail, turn audiences at least temporarily into raging germophobes. I think there’s something to this philosophy.

Matt... Damon?

Like previous Soderbergh projects Traffic (which he directed) and Syriana (which he produced), Contagion follows an ensemble cast of characters and a series of interwoven narratives in order to explore a significant social phenomenon from multiple very different perspectives. Whereas those films were examinations of contemporary, real-world phenomena, however, Contagion tackles a chilling “what if?” scenario, expounding on existing scientific knowledge to devise a series of nightmarishly believable possibilities in ways that would make the late Michael Crichton proud. The film’s primary plot threads follow the virus’s first known victim (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Minnesotan businesswoman returning from a trip to Hong Kong; her husband (Matt Damon), who is discovered to be immune to the virus and forced to cope with his loss while protecting his teenage daughter; a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Laurence Fishburne) tasked by the US government with finding an answer to the virus, and fast; an Epidemic Intelligence Services (yes, that is a real thing) officer (Kate Winslet) sent to Minneapolis to investigate the initial outbreak; a World Health Organization epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) sent to Hong Kong to investigate the virus’s point of origin; and a paranoid, opportunistic blogger (Jude Law) who provokes from another character the best line in the film: “Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation!” This is not even counting the myriad subplots and periphery characters that populate the 106-minute film; this is one jam-packed movie, and the plot moves forward at a relentless pace without a second of filler. In some ways, it feels too succinct; when the credits rolled I felt vaguely unsatisfied, like I wanted to go back and explore some of the characters and plot threads further. Traffic was based on a TV mini-series, re-imagined and condensed into a two-hour film. I would love to see the opposite occur with Contagion; the scope, complexity and multifaceted nature of the film’s plot could easily carry, and would in fact lend itself quite well to a one-season TV series, and a number of topics and ideas only briefly (if at all) touched upon in the film, such as the virus’s impact on countries other than the United States and China, could be effectively fleshed out in such a format.

Marion Cotillard's character is given a traditional Chinese greeting.

As a work of film, Contagion is rarely less than satisfactory. Soderbergh’s direction is always clean, focused, low-key and confident, all products of a man with enough experience behind the camera by now that he doesn’t feel the need to show off for his audience. The score by Cliff Martinez does its job well enough and no more; on the few occasions in which it rises above its typical ambiance to attempt to become a driving force in a scene, it often threatens to undermine the film’s otherwise continuous rollercoaster of tension with its tendencies toward overwrought cheesiness, but thankfully whenever this happens it settles back into its comfort zone before long. The acting for all of the major characters is as solid as anything you’d expect from the big names involved, though some of the secondary characters could have used some work, and a number of the actors – even Kate Winslet – have scenes in which they are quite clearly struggling to sound natural while speaking in scientific lingo that they themselves understand not a word of. Given the relentless pacing, grand scope and plot-focused nature of the film, complaining that some of the characters feel flat and some of the dialogue falls into leaden or overly-blatant exposition and matter-of-fact science lessons might seem to be reaching a bit, but these deficiencies, minor as they may be, are there for the viewers that might be bothered by them. On the other hand, despite the grim tone and subject matter of the film, it repeatedly manages to sneak in some welcome black humor – the scene in which a dry, overly-professional doctor informs Matt Damon of his wife’s death, for example, is simultaneously genuinely disturbing and darkly funny. As the everyman just trying to cope with day-to-day life among a cast immersed in biological horror and medical intrigue, Matt Damon’s character arc is the most fleshed-out and vital to the film. By contrast, Jude Law’s character comes off in parts as somewhat extraneous; though Soderbergh and Burns seem to feel strongly about the need to draw parallels between Law’s character’s manipulation of public opinion through social networking and the proliferation of the virus (to the point of having several characters make a direct comparison on multiple occasions), one wonders whether this could have been done without giving the ultimately fairly shallow character such a large share of precious screentime, especially since his subplot feels both the least necessary and the least plausible out of the major ones in the film.

True to its creators’ ambitions, Contagion’s greatest strength as a story is its eerie plausibility. Soderbergh and Zant hired a doctor from Columbia University to extensively supervise the incorporation of real-life science into the film, and even to the virology layman, their thoroughness shows in the sheer level of detail and thought put into the depiction of the outbreak. Every plot point strikes that perfect balance between being exciting enough to move the story forward, yet believable enough that the audience can accept that this could actually happen. Repeated references are made to the catastrophic 1918 Spanish flu pandemic; it hardly seems like a stretch to describe the film as a detailed imagining of what a similarly lethal viral outbreak would look like in the 2010s. The symptoms of the virus are gruesome, and the mundane means by which it is transmitted makes for great paranoia fuel. The origin of the virus, once revealed, is chilling in its simplicity. Possibly more disturbing than the virus itself, however, is the film’s depiction of the ways in which civilized society reacts to the outbreak. Neighbors turn against each other, riots break out, politicians scramble to save their own kind first, and sleepy suburban neighborhoods and grocery stores become lawless jungles where the resources necessary to survive go to the strong, and the weak are left deprived or worse. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen in plenty of apocalyptic-minded films before, but something about the stark transition between a teenage girl using an iPhone to text her boyfriend and the house across from her having its fridges raided by shotgun-wielding looters really drives the point home in a way few prior films have managed.

I think this image pretty much speaks for itself.

Did Contagion scare me? Well, I slept last night, if that’s the answer you’re looking for, and I was able to bring myself to hitch a ride on an over-packed piece of public transportation to get back to my dorm. So I guess if being well and truly scared by a movie means developing a new set of obsessive-compulsive behaviors for life, then Contagion has failed. But I think there’s a little more to it than that. For the next few hours after I saw the film – I’m not going to lie – I was careful to avoid making direct contact with anyone or anything that had just been touched around me. So I did pick up a few obsessive-compulsive behaviors for the evening, at least. This is more significant than you might think: to directly influence our behavior on any level, a piece of media intending to scare us must first sell us convincingly on the fact that the threat it depicts is not merely confined to the world within the screen, but lives in our own world, too. Contagion, frank and straight-faced as it is, was by and large able to do that. Dorky as this sounds, after watching the movie I feel like I have learned a thing or two that might even be applicable to real life: if I ever happen to be at the epicenter of a virus scare, I feel like I’m now better-prepared, however slightly, to deal with the medical and social consequences that it could entail. As a movie, its style and subject matter not only make me eager for similar work, but are indicative of the influence of a high-profile filmmaker who doesn’t feel the need to be condescending or deceitful with his audience – if Soderbergh is serious about his intent to quit Hollywood, his presence will leave a gap in their roster of big-name contemporary filmmakers. It may not be a groundbreaking work of art, but Contagion is a Hollywood disaster film for the 21st century, and – producers, take note – it will scare your pants off.

Arbitrary Score: 7/10 – Good

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2 Responses to “Complaining All The Time: Contagion (2011)”

  1. Tarnsman April 18, 2012 at 4:12 AM #

    I’ve been meaning to see this film, but the “disease kills everyone” sub-genre is probably my least favorite type of disaster film.

    • gatotsu2501 April 18, 2012 at 1:07 PM #

      I’d say the hard sci-fi angle sets this one apart from your typical disaster film; it’s entertaining purely as a thought experiment. If you’ve ever liked anything by Michael Crichton, I can recommend this.

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