Director : Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay : Scott Z. Burns
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff), Laurence Fishburne (Dr. Ellis Cheever), Kate Winslet (Dr. Erin Mears), Jude Law (Alan Krumwiede), Marion Cotillard (Dr. Leonora Orantes), Anna Jacoby-Heron (Jory Emhoff), Jennifer Ehle (Dr. Ally Hextall), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff), Demetri Martin (Dr. David Eisenberg), Elliott Gould (Dr. Ian Sussman), Bryan Cranston (Lyle Haggerty), Chin Han (Sun Feng), Sanaa Lathan (Aubrey Cheever)
If one can say anything about Steven Soderbergh, it is that the only predictable thing about him is his unpredictability. A rare filmmaker who has moved fluidly and consistently between unconventional and even experimental independent production and major Hollywood studio films, Soderbergh never makes the same film twice, and over the decades he has dabbled in virtually every genre and style imaginable, from intimate dramas, to large-scale social problem films, to offbeat crime thrillers, to avant-garde comedies. Thus, it is not surprising that he approaches the epidemic thriller Contagion--a kind of throwback to the days of star-studded Irwin Allen disaster orgies--from an unconventional perspective, eschewing typical dramatics for a more distanced, clinical approach that focuses our attention on the machinations of how a pandemic spreads and modern science’s (possibly inadequate) tools for containing it.
Penned by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2010), the film begins with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wife and mother who returns from a business trip in Hong Kong (with a stop-off in Chicago for an adulterous liaison) with a new breed of infectious disease that leaves her glassy-eyed, foaming at the mouth, and then dead in a few days. We also see several other characters, including a Chinese man and a British woman, suffering from the same symptoms, thus establishing immediately the global threat this disease presents. Each sequence is stamped with a numbered day, which orients us temporally while also subtly enhancing the growing panic (the increasingly large numbers work double-time, corresponding directly to the pandemic’s exponential spread and inversely to the dwindling hope that it can be contained). Beth’s husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is inexplicably immune to the disease, but the vast majority of the human race is not, and within weeks it is spreading around the globe, killing millions of people and sending everyone else into an escalating sense of panic that threatens to undermine the stability of modern civilization, especially with saber-rattling blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) constantly stirring the pot and questioning both the intentions and the efficacy of the powers that be. If anything, Contagion is a compelling depiction of the multiple modes of communication in the modern world (the film is filled with press conferences, news interviews, and the debate between established print media and the borderless new world of blogging) and how they interact to both assuage us and multiply our fears, rightly or otherwise.
Unlike conventional Hollywood thrillers, there is not one hero, but rather a kind of collective hero in the form of the scientific establishment, which is represented by both individual researchers like Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), a university professor who is the first to replicate the disease in the lab, and government entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). In this regard, the film is very much a product of the current era, injecting itself into the battle between government-slashing Tea Party rhetoric and the Obama administration’s federal solutions to the ailing economy. There is an understandable tendency to see the film as unproblematically hoisting aloft the government as the only solution to such massive problems (especially with the way it demonizes Law’s snaggle-toothed, ethically deficient blogger), but the collective hero is fundamentally flawed, not just in the realities of bureaucratic jams, but also because its human entities act, well, human. So, at one point Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the deputy director of the CDC, uses his privileged position to convey information to a loved one in order to give her a better chance of survival, a decision with which we can all empathize if it technically constitutes an abuse of his power.
Such ethical lapses aside, the film clearly and unequivocally celebrates dogged professionalism (best embodied by Jennifer Ehle’s quiet and brilliant CDC researcher), which at times threatens to make it a somewhat stodgy affair. Nevertheless, Soderbergh (who always acts as his own cinematographer) keeps the incessantly yellow-tinted film lithe and jaunty, moving us quickly amid various subplots while also racheting up the tensions. (He also clearly relishes the license the story gives him to kill off major stars--how many other movies feature Oscar-winning actresses having their skulls graphically opened up on-screen?) The human characters understandably come across as somewhat one-dimensional, although we nevertheless feel for them, particularly the tragic characters like Damon’s struggling father figure who just wants to keep his teenage daughter safe from both the disease and the global madness it is producing; Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a CDC deputy who contracts the disease while trying to track down its origin; and Dr. Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a WHO epidemiologist who is taken hostage in China to ensure that a small village is put first on the list for vaccinations if and when they are developed.
In the end, Contagion doesn’t tell a new story, and it relies on many of the same Hollywood conventions as its forebears, particularly conveniences of narrative compression that leave arguably crucial moments off-screen (for a film that focuses so much on the day-to-day realities of what might happen in such an event, it is curious that it skimps so much on depicting the science involved in moving from discovery of a possible medical solution to mass producing and distributing said solution). Nevertheless, Soderbergh dexterously manages the multiple plotlines and keeps it just engaging enough on a human level that it doesn’t feel too emotionally distant without getting hung up in melodrama and pathos (Cliff Martinez’s cool, minimalistic electronic score is crucial in this regard). While it may cut some corners, Contagion’s depiction of just how easily a worldwide medical crisis can spread is deeply unsettling, so don’t feel surprised if you walk out of the theater afraid to touch anything and jump at the sound of someone else’s cough.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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