Sam: Whether it’s the superb Traffic, the blockbuster Ocean series, or something as unique as The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh never fails to be interesting. Contagion, his newest endeavor, is no exception. Here is a taut and engrossing film that doesn’t baby its audience or spoon-feed it every little detail. However, this horror thriller does contain the same fundamental and redundant issues that occur all too frequently in Soderbergh’s filmmaking: Contagion lacks compelling emotional elements, convolutes the screen with far too many story lines, and overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes.
Contagion is focused on the threat posed by a dangerous and deadly disease, spreading quickly throughout the world. With the disease refusing to isolate, evading origin, and rejecting any type of cure, it morphs into an epidemic of the highest order. In order to give the audience a worldly and knowing view of what’s going on around the globe, Soderbergh weaves multiple, diverse storylines.
Just to name the major players we have Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), the possible origin of the disease that sparks the proceeding events. Then her husband played by Matt Damon who is genetically immune to the disease. Laurence Fishburne plays a hard-nosed doctor trying to make ethical decisions in the best interest of both himself and the country while Jude Law passes as an online blogger who prides himself on telling the truth, reporting on the epidemic and possibly inventing a cure. Also on the cast, Kate Winslet takes the role of a seemingly living saint masquerading as a dedicated doctor and of course Marion Cotillard plays a government representative who gets caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who is responsible for The Bourne Ultimatum and The Informant!) is front and center here, crafting something from scratch and concocting a story of many complexities. The selling point of the picture is that this sort of predicament can and has happened. Everyone remembers H1N1 influenza and swine flu a few years ago as well as the harsh realities and outcomes that were brought forth from the epidemics. Imagine that, and multiply the amount of deaths and restraints on people by a factor of one hundred or one thousand.
One thing is for sure: Contagion should get serious recognition come Oscar season for best ensemble. Without diverging into a tangent, the sub-characters here are fantastic and in some cases far more interesting than our protagonists. They include actors such as John Hawkes (nominated for best supporting actor in last year’s Winter’s Bone), Grace Rex, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and Bryan Cranston. While the round about cast is impressive, it ultimately comes to be the film’s breaking point. We have too many big name actors all fighting for fair screen time and juicy dialogue. The result is merely lackadaisical storytelling.
Marion Cotillard’s character, for example, seems to be completely forgotten for about 35 minute of the film: gone, vanished, non-existent. Winslet’s character is the most prominent and engaging, but soon disappear for the sake of the disease. Damon’s stereotypical father role does nothing for the movie but add disingenuous sentiment. These and more character (and subplot) decisions don’t come off nearly as clever or dramatic as you would expect, and it makes you mostly aware that Soderbergh has far too many individual storylines to handle in one, cohesive film.
Though, the funny thing is I enjoyed Contagion and was quite satisfied with the final product immediately afterwards. But then, I gave the picture some fair, honest critical thought. What I found was that here’s a picture that you can appreciate and not bother with dissecting its logistics or you can break it down and ultimately come to a conclusion that this is one flawed, though engrossing mess.
There’s enough competent material and solid performances to keep you awake, despite Soderbergh’s sloppy and ponder-some editing. The intermittent lack of drama and prolonged run-time keep the film far off from something great but again, Soderbergh bounces back with fine camerawork and a pulsating score that builds up a dreary, dark, and sporadically horrifying atmosphere.
Contagion thrives in its subtleties and sub-characters, while simultaneously proclaiming itself as an amiable, though entertaining “What if” techno-action-drama. Now, time to wash the hands.
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Paolo: The apprehensions that come with watching Steven Soderbergh’s epidemic drama Contagion are understandable. Expectations are always high for an Oscar-winning director and movies like this only fulfill those half of the time at best. There is also the possibility that some, if not all of the film’s six major stars will be underused, since the horrors of an epidemic disease can often outshine the best actors. And didn’t he make Traffic a few years ago, a more dramatic Oscar winning film which would have aged better if not for its cinematography?
Worry not, Soderbergh handles these minefields well enough, weaving an impressive number of story lines and characters into a first-rate horror thriller. Added bonus, we get to see the actors’ normal flesh tones, for the most part. Contagion begins in with Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Minnesota businesswoman starting to develop flu-like symptom on her flight home from Hong Kong. Her health deteriorates rapidly after she lands and she soon dies in a Minneapolis hospital, much to the shock of her distraught husband (Matt Damon). It isn’t long before these same symptoms and deaths spread throughout the world as authorities attempt to control the outbreak.
Nearly half of the characters are doctors or virologists so the movie’s scientific premise inevitably surface. Geneva-based Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) travels to Hong Kong to study footage of Beth in a casino to trace how she has gotten infected. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) tells someone high up in the Department of Homeland Security about the weaponization of the avian virus as well as this mysterious sickness. He sends his colleague, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to check on Beth’s husband.
There’s also Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), spreading panic with his blog (yay!) called “The Truth Serum”, predicting that a billion deaths is “where we’re heading,” taking the film from the confines of conference rooms, hospital wards and laboratories, to the outside world where desperation, panic and chaos soon take over. It’s startling to see empty airports and shopping malls, beautiful cities like San Francisco with its empty, littered streets, and riots erupting in Minneapolis. The sights are almost overwhelming, football stadiums turned into treatment centers, the face of a beautiful woman waiting to be buried in a mass grave wrapped in a translucent body bag and yes, major characters who don’t make it to the end.
Contagion would be cold and emotionless if it wasn’t for its portrayal of the struggle between the selfish and the selfless. Situations like the one featured in the film encourages its characters towards acts of altruism. These scenes add the human side to what could easily have been a story relying too heavily on the scientific and sociopolitical aspects of a pandemic. The film’s best moments aren’t always the flashy ones but instead when more subtle, telling actions such as Kate Winslet’s character trying to throw a winter jacket to a man who’s freezing or Cheever, receiving perks due to his influential position in the government, but giving what’s supposed to be his to a janitor’s (John Hawkes) child.
On the other hand, selfish and violent impulses predictably arise when faced with facts that one sixth of the world’s population might be wiped out. What is shamelessly delightful about Contagion are the sprinkles of a nihilistic sense of humor that’s unique to Soderbergh. I was the only one in the theater howling while watching The Informant two years ago or maybe that’s just narcissistic me thinking that Soderbergh’s sense of humor is my own little secret. This time, I wasn’t the only person laughing when Kate Winslet’s character ask Tom, still reeling from the death of his wife, intrusive questions about her. Hilarity also ensues as Alan faces the authorities, whose bureaucratic dysfunction as the movie’s other source of dark humor.
We can also interpret the film’s ending as darkly humorous, summarizing a moral story as arguably xenophobic and Faulknerian. Despite those interpretations, the ending is undeniably in tune with the coincidences that make this film a study of diverse human reactions and decisions.
Notes: Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language, 105 minutes.