A film review by Craig J. Koban September 14, 2011
2011, PG-13, 105 mins.
2011, PG-13, 105 mins.
Mitch: Matt Damon / Alan:
Jude Law / Dr. Mears: Kate Winslet / Dr. Orantes: Marion
Cotillard / Beth: Gwyneth Paltrow / Dr. Cheever: Laurence
Fishburne / Dr. Sussman: Elliott Gould
is a mercilessly cold, calculating, and thoroughly eerie pandemic
thriller, which is typified by director Steven Soderbergh’s disturbingly
precise, understatedly stylish, and well paced direction.
The fact that the film has perhaps too many characters and subplots
to invest in and that they’re less developed than they should be is
probably of no real surprise. CONTAGION
is less about its personas and their side stories and more
about drumming up an escalating and methodical sense of unease and dread. And for that, Soderbergh delivers the goods in a strong mainstream
diversion for him.
This is not a disaster
thriller in the more accepted sense of the genre.
There are no really large action set pieces, cities are not
completely destroyed, and heavily CGI-infused mayhem and
epileptic-seizure-inducing editing are not the norms.
What’s most evocative here is how deceptively low key it
all is: this is not a film that’s out to be flashy and
kinetic, designed for impatient teen moviegoers that have attention
deficit disorder. No,
Soderbergh is far too shrewd of a filmmaker for that type of dime-a-dozen
artifice. Instead, he films
CONTAGION with an icy detachment and an unnerving, steely-eyed
importantly, though, is the fact that the film feels creepily plausible
all throughout as it shows a slow and natural development of a virus and
then given us a measured, but alarming view of the de-evolution of the
world when such a disease grabs a hold of it.
Because of that, CONTAGION is far more terrifying than many other
script – written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously worked with
Soderbergh on the terrific THE INFORMANT!
– is much like TRAFFIC in the way it tries to balance and weave
in-between multiple story-threads involving a cross pollination of
cultures. It’s not done
with the same level of slick polish or competence as TRAFFIC or, say, BABEL,
but CONTAGION's screenplay remains fairly well thought out and tensely envisioned.
The film traverses chronologically (almost), giving us – as its
retro-cool title cards indicate – “Day 2”, “Day 3”, and so forth
descriptors (the conclusion of the film whisks us back to “Day 1” with
a fiendishly clever explanation that shows how the virus precisely began).
We also get obligatory geographical title cards indicating the cities as
well all over the world, but Soderbergh also does something interesting
here by providing us the population numbers as well.
That has the effect of giving scale to the future pandemic to come,
especially if it goes from host to host with an calamitous rate that would
make the 1918 Spanish Flu bug look like a slight touch of the fever.
The film's cast is universally
stellar and well assembled: Matt Damon (one of Soderbergh’s best go-to actors) plays Mitch,
whose wife (played briefly by Gwyenth Paltrow), a Minneapolis business woman,
has returned from a trip from Hong Kong back home to Chicago…but something
is not right. No need for
spoiler warning here (it’s in the trailers), but she dies rather
suddenly from a mysterious and unknown virus that has left her doctors and
husband mystified. Just watch how Damon in particular (one of our finest and
most attuned actors) goes through every divergent stage of receiving
sudden death news in the film’s best scene; his wife’s untimely death
immediate that he cannot initially accept that she’s gone.
One interesting side note: Mitch
and his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron, natural and poised) seem to be
A man in Tokyo suffers from
the same symptoms as Mitch’s wife, and as cell phone cameras record similar
incidents all over the world, news of a deadly new virus
goes…well…viral…and spreads almost as fast as the new disease
itself. This really gets Alan
Krumwiede up in arms (he's played by Jude Law, sporting a very obvious prosthetic tooth device and
looking sort of GQ cover boy kooky), seeing as he's an independent blogger that has engaged in a guerrilla
campaign of reporting truths and falsehoods regarding the new bug and
potential cures. Doctors and
scientists don’t take him seriously; one in particular (played by Elliot
Gould) tells him at one point, “Blogging is just graffiti with
punctuation!” Great line.
As the virus makes its
distressing transmission through the world via indirect contact, we are
introduced to the other major players that fight against it: There is the
CDC deputy director (the increasingly more rotund, but always effective
Laurence Fishburne) whose job it is to coordinate a proper response to the
public without instilling global panic (although he goes through credibility
issues as a result of making selfish choices during the epidemic).
Then there is a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer (Kate
Winslet) that goes into areas affected and works with the responders to
contain the virus. There is a medical researcher (Jennifer Ehle) that is trying
to beat the rapid spread of the disease by finding a cure as soon as
possible. Finally, there is a
WHO representative (the always fetching Marion Cotillard) that is tracking
the global spread of the disease, while at the same time getting herself
involved in a very dicey situation. While
all of these players feebly attempt to contain the virus, the pandemic
grows and then panic steps in the form of riots, looting, and all out
CONTAGION is at its strongest
when it finds terrifying moments during the most redundant of daily
activities. The film opens
with a series of juxtaposed images from around the world of seemingly
normal people doing ordinary and mundane things, but Soderbergh keenly
focuses on the little, subtle things that we all do habitually –
touching our faces constantly, even when not aware of it; wiping our noses
with our hands and then handling food or shaking other people’s hands;
coughing into the air instead of our arms, etc..
What this does is to show how a disease can spread with such a
lethal and shockingly casual effectiveness.
Few pandemic films show as much concern for documenting the
evolution of its virus like this one does.
The scope of the film is quite
large, with Soderbergh panning from everywhere from Geneva to China to
Chicago to Minneapolis with a sure-fire expediency, showing the
large-scale consequences of the virus’ impact.
Yet, as stated, there are perhaps too many characters here that are
simply not well realized (with the possible exception of Damon’s
grieving husband and his tenuous relationship with his teen daughter).
Many story threads are developed and then left frustratingly
unresolved (as is the case with Cotillard, who kind of just disappears
from the film) whereas others are used more as plot points.
The character of Krumwiede is particularly ill-defined, especially
near the film’s conclusion, not to mention that his
government-drug-company conspiracy arc seems like it's from a whole other
film altogether. At the end, you are kind of left wondering where this
character’s loyalties really lie, seeing as we are left with just a
vague impression of what they are.
Nonetheless, CONTAGION is a solidly mounted, atypically smart, and credibly fearsome thriller that thankfully does not take cues from other similar films by milking lame melodrama and obtrusive action to thrill audience members. I have read how some critics have described the film as a “slow-burn” of terror, which is apt. Soderbergh’s slickly assured, but modulated esoteric fingerprints and the virus itself are perhaps the real characters and selling points of CONTAGION, which makes it rise above more run-of-the-mill virus-disaster pictures.
You may also want to wash your hands multiple times after leaving the theatre, which is also to the film's credit.