Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow
Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins
Release Date: September 9, 2011
PLOT: A woman (Paltrow) gets a new disease on a business trip and brings it back to the States. When it begins to spread, the entire world must react.
WHO’S IT FOR?: Germaphobes will use this example as strong reasoning for their frequent hand-washing. In a wider spectrum, Contagion has the ability to freak you out about hopeless hygiene, but nothing more.
EXPECTATIONS: I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Contagion. Would it be like the Traffic of epidemic movies? How much of Chicago would it feature? Was there any chance that Soderbergh’s visual style could make this into a haunting, beautiful science-fiction experience like Children of Men?
Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff: We get our civilian perspective from Mitch, played anxiously by Damon. He’s in the beginning of the story because he’s somehow immune. And then when we want to know more about him, the script doesn’t give us these important tidbits to really caring about his character. Instead, he just becomes Average Joe, hoping to protect his daughter from getting sick. His emotional scene at the end, involving his wife’s photos, feels a bit late.
Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears: As the voice of Contagion’s fear, Winslet does a good job of spooking us with her cold facts. Her monologue about face-touching is surely to effect the way we use our hands, and is also swiftly educational in showing how epidemics are judged and calculated. Even more disturbing is the fate given to her by Contagion, showing that its unpredictability is the film’s best attribute.
Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever: This head honcho for the CDC tells Dr. Mears that they are “connected by the cell phone,” and he’s right. Dr. Cheever is isolated from a great deal of the numbers he discusses, and the pandemonium that he is trying to prevent. As a character usually standing still during all of this, he isn’t a very interesting side of the issue to follow around.
Jude Law as Alan Krumweide: Law’s character might be the most complex creature focused on in Contagion, other than the virus itself, but you’ll still be thinking half the time, “What’s up with that snaggletooth?” He’s a good example of Contagion’s characterization, which sets up interesting characters and then finds a way to take our attention away from them (as with Cotillard’s disappearing character, etc.)
TALKING: Scenes of dialogue are written with proper tension, and the movie relies heavily on people discussing the events, as opposed to showing them. The most action in Contagion, sans a couple riots, happens in conference rooms and usually with technology like cell phones or even video chat. That being said, Contagion is not without clever exchanges between opposing characters (like when Alan tells a woman working for a “prehistoric” newspaper that he’ll “save her a seat on the bus.”)
SIGHTS: Contagion stubborn style of consistent static shots loses its flair when the story itself doesn’t seem to have a clear direction. Yes, Soderbergh can find the visual dynamics of any room, but watching a scene in which the camera is completely lifeless becomes tiresome. Ironically, when the movie does have a bit of energy with its visuals, as seen during a revelatory montage, the speed is much too fast, and it’s a moment when long shots would be effective. Instead, Soderbergh rushes through a montage that shows the emptiness of a busy city in San Francisco, this time literally cutting short the beauty of his imagery.
SOUNDS: Going with the coldness of this movie’s style, there’s hardly any music to be heard in Contagion. There are some moments where a heavy beat literally pulsates, like a worried heart beat (especially in the movie’s final montage). U2’s “All I Want Is You” is the only song really heard in the movie, and it provides a pretty break from the movie’s near dead silence.
BEST SCENE: The beginning of the movie, meaning the first ten minutes or so, starts off pretty strong (aside from showing cliche representations of its used countries). Even the pan-down to Paltrow’s peanut bowl is eerie, and makes for the start of a good cinematography motif that quietly presents omnipotent fear. I love the big typeface headlines, and how it starts on “Day 2.”
ENDING: We go back to Day 1, in a fashion that is done with Contagion-common coldness, and is more creepy and disturbing than anything that happened before it. The wrong bat, and the wrong pig. Even the wrong banana!
QUESTIONS: Is it hopeless to want Soderbergh to make another movie that is similar to, and is as good as Traffic?
REWATCHABILITY: Contagion can make for a slow viewing in the middle, but I am curious to revisit it in a couple months to see if it feels any faster. It’s not the type of movie I’m going to rush out to see again, though it’s tempting to see this movie in its unnecessary IMAX form.
Stylistically, Contagion is a little too pristine with its calculated shots and simple static camera placement. A movie with this kind of pandemonium would benefit from a rougher, more raw vision – it shouldn’t hesitate to get its hands dirty. And even parts of this movie do visually hinge on experimental, (such as the “everyone is gone” montage in San Francisco), Soderbergh rushes through these moments get to more static shots, featuring more people discussing the issues and throwing out statistics we hardly see visualizations of.
Contagion does get its hands dirty with its storyline, which is wonderfully unafraid to reduce marquee names to a casualty statistic in just a short amount of time. Unfortunately, such looseness with these characters also means weak development – the many characters scurrying around in Contagion are more likely to be memorable by the person who portrays them than actual traits.
Contagion creates its fear simply to keep audiences engaged, but not to actually infect moviegoers with a resonant anxiety that sticks around much longer after the lights go up. Sure, it might cause someone to watch how many times they touch their face, but its fear is based around hopeless doom. It’s just an upfront reminder that we’d get the bill if a bad bat and a bad pig shared a banana split. If an epidemic were to happen, we can’t do anything but try to elude it for as long as possible. This is the same futile fear philosophy that makes Final Destination movies so disposable.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10