Contagion Review

Even beyond spectacle, the true cache of any disaster movie is scope, and the way that destruction both gradual and immediate is conveyed. As ridiculous as they frequently were, the Irwin Allen films remained compelling because they were committed to fully realizing the possibilities of catastrophe, rather than making them seem especially plausible. Contagion, however, has the opposite problem. Its conception of a disease and its effects are entirely rooted in reality, but it feels like a studio-mandated cut of a three-hour film, with only the barest skeleton of a story provided. Some of the horror is there, but none of the weight is.

Though the biggest influence here would seem to be Allen (at least in its all-star cast, which includes Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, and half the cast of The Talented Mr. Ripley), director Steven Soderbergh ultimately draws the most from his own recent films, most notably Traffic. Despite the studio money that was clearly behind this, the aesthetic remains decidedly low-fi, complete with awkwardly long takes, hand-held shots, and a noticeable lack of makeup on any of the leads. In the past, this approach has proven effective (in particular, Dawn of the Dead showed up any number of competitors simply by keeping its location static), and in instances of people coughing on city buses, bureaucrats haggling, and scientists working in labs, glimmers of what Soderbergh had in mind seem to come through.

This film’s most obvious counterpart is Outbreak, Wolfgang Petersen’s 1995 effort with a nearly identical premise and similarly padded cast. In almost every instance where Outbreak zigged, Contagion zagged, right down to their competing thoughts on how to resolve their seemingly insurmountable problems. Outbreak was full of derring-do and noble speeches, while Contagion is full of detective-work and apocalyptic angst. Its conclusion was entirely too tidy, but for the terms that it set for itself, Outbreak laid out a fairly compelling scenario, and it did so in satisfying detail. Contagion covers a similar amount of ground in a similar amount of time, but ultimately shows a great deal less.

Convenient subtitles inform us that the film starts on day two of the virus’s spread, and continue to act as a narrative crutch as we are taken through several hundred days and a number of international locations in less than two hours. Civilization collapses in the span of weeks in narrative time, but mere seconds to the viewer, conveying none of the desperation, panic, or horror that got it to that point. A few interesting characters emerge, particularly Law’s journalist, who profits in the miliions by selling a drug that the government refuses to endorse, but for the most part, there are no active main characters, only vignettes.

One has to admire Soderbergh’s dedication to refuting the Hollywood approach, which so frequently distills complicated situations into trite and false solutions, but his desire to keep things realistic denies the proceedings of any overarching narrative. The best accounts of viral spreads in both fiction (The Stand) and non-fiction (And The Band Played On) tend to be stories of bureaucratic incompetence and social fracture, with death tolls serving to highlight already existing problems in the affected population. Here, no such themes are present, save that people tend to panic in large groups when presented with imminent death, but even that isn’t sustained into any larger insight.

There are some decent moments in Contagion (the autopsy of the first victim is especially effective), but all too often, it’s unclear exactly why Soderbergh thought that what he was showing was particularly revealing about the larger situation. There may have been a strong movie to be made here, but as if, it feels like an injudicious one.

Bonus Features

The Blu-ray comes with three short featurettes: "The Reality of Contagion", which is fairly self-explanatory, and features a number of the cast members, along with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, "The Contagion Detectives", concerning the real-life counterparts of the people presented here, and "Contagion: How A Virus Changes The World", a fairly irritating graphic explaining how viruses work.

"Contagion" is on sale January 3, 2012 and is rated PG13. Thriller. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Starring Bryan Cranston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon.

Jan
10
2012
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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