Review: 'Contagion' Is Less Terrifying and More Interestingly Paranoid
by Jeremy Kirk
September 12, 2011
A star-studded disaster movie, Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is more Robert Altman than Irwin Allen, more paranoia and societal breaking point than beautiful people dealing directly with the natural calamity at hand. At times chillingly quiet instead of edge-of-your seat intense, it sends a cool rush of air through the audience, and though it coasts to a subdued, almost dissatisfying, conclusion and splits off varying strands of disconnected lines of plot, some unneeded, others forgotten along the way, Contagion ends up an intriguing real-world look at what might happen if we're confronted with a worldwide epidemic.
Soderbergh's film may have benefited from the director pumping up the suspense level - the film's scariest aspect is the stray tooth Jude Law is sporting up front - but the character pieces are still for the most part present and confidently executed. It all begins with Gwyneth Paltrow. Doesn't everything, though? A businesswoman traveling from Hong Kong to her home and family in Minneapolis, she has contracted a strange virus, one with flu-like symptoms that clenches onto her immune system and kills her mere days after first exposure. While her husband, played by Matt Damon, deals with what has happened to her, more and more outbreaks of this virus pop up around the world. Soon, a CDC investigation lead by two doctors, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet, is mounted as to what has caused the virus and how they can thwart it before it becomes an out-of-control pandemic.
For the most part, Soderbergh bounces between stories around the world with graceful editing, never jarring you from one moment to the next. In the early moments of the film, Marion Cotillard's character of a member of the World Health Organization in Geneva is handled with as much assuredness as Damon's mourning husband and father trying to save his daughter from the potential outbreak. The early moments, probably the first half, of Contagion plays like a Michael Crichton novel complete with medical and scientific terminology, analogous exposition to help the audience keep up with how serious this disease is, and interesting characters from every aspect of this event.
However, once Contagion goes from being about a worldwide epidemic to the way the world falls apart once such a things strikes it, it begins to coast, running through certain motions without the build that has come before. Some characters disappear completely. Others vanish for long stretches at a time. While some of the in between may not be necessary to show us, it's certainly noticeable when we haven't seen certain characters in a while. Contagion loses its sense of tight editing and attention grabbing, and instead lets some of the loose strands simply flail about unobserved.
Soderbergh has never been a director who instills much emotion into his directorial efforts, either, gifted as he may be. And while melodrama injected into a disaster movie causes it to lean more towards those Irwin Allen movies of the 1970s, an ounce of sentiment in more than a few of the story strands here would have help tremendously. When Damon's husband realizes his wife has died, there's hardly a moment of emotion there. Granted, he's in shock and is hit with another shocking moment just seconds later, but an instance of reflection couldn't have hurt. What we have now to feed off of are Jude Law's impassioned cries that the government is lying to us and one character's final moment where their last act is one of charity.
Instead, Soderbergh piles on the paranoia, the long, cold shots of surfaces the sick have come in contact with, a glass of water someone has drank from. It's all there to make even the most care-free of moviegoers think twice about touching their face - evidently, we do this three to five times every waking minutes, so good lock dealing with that information. For the most part, it works. You certainly think twice about utilizing the five second rule or even using a public restroom after watching Contagion, and the film ends up coming off like it's trying to make interacting with anyone anywhere at any time what Psycho did for showers.
That star-studded cast mentioned earlier gives it their all, though. No one drops the ball in terms of acting, particularly Damon who always brings his A game especially when working with Soderbergh. However, of all the notable actors and actresses in Contagion, it's Jennifer Ehle as a CDC doctor who shines brightest, handling very bit of sincerity in her character without effort and matching it with her own.
Of course, decent enough as Contagion is in its overall execution, the final moments are by far the worst of the film. Without giving too much away, Soderbergh feels the need to hold his audience's hand, how us the catalyst of this epidemic we had pretty much already pieced together for ourselves. While much of the exposition in Contagion is handled smoothly and unnoticed, the final three minutes are an exercise in how not to deliver information.
However, as needlessly explanatory the end of the film is, Contagion ultimately stands as rather successful look of the paranoia, the absolute fear, and the shock of a world that is hit with something it cannot control. The virus at the center of Contagion is scarier than any movie monster, completely invisible and with the ability to strike anyone at any time without compassion. Could Contagion have been scarier? Yes. Could it have been more emotionally impactful? Definitely. But what Steven Soderbergh has given us is a look at the way it could be, probably will be, and the question is drilled into our head as to who we would handle such a moment in time.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10