Contagion (2011)

Released during the waning days of summer, one could easily look to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion as the movie to bridge summer blockbusters and the autumn run of award fodder. Indeed, this was what I had heard going into the movie, so I was disappointed to find that Contagion is a strikingly mediocre film that desperately needs to trim down its characters and subplots.

Contagion is a disaster film that asks what would happen to our global society in the face of a highly contagious and deadly virus. The premise is intriguing and timely, and the film treats it with appropriate maturity. Like Soderbergh’s 2000 film Traffic, we see the effects of this event on many different characters and levels of society. The disease starts with Gwyneth Paltrow as Patient Zero, who contracts the disease on a visit to Hong Kong. Before you can say “Tippi Hedren”, she’s dead, and the people she interacted with are spreading the new virus, MEV-1, all over the world.

Paltrow is one of many stars in this film. Matt Damon plays her widower husband, and his mission to protect his daughter is probably the most gripping storyline in the film. It’s the emotionally salient every-man thread, a peek into the familial tension that such a crisis could evoke. Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne lead another storyline, one that gives us a lot of the (very intelligent) science behind the disease, as well as a (very informative) look at the bureaucracy that surrounds the search for a cure. Winslet is enjoyable as a compassionate and intelligent CDC worker, but sadly, she also bows out of the film early, leaving Fishburne and his stock of groan-worthy cliche lines on his own.

Other subplots don’t hold up as well.

Jude Law’s is the most egregious, as a slimy conspiracy-theorizing blogger. This storyline had to be present in some form – in fact, it’s practically essential that the film address how the internet affects the spread of information, and how 9/11-Truther-type people would react to a global pandemic. But it seems like Law just doesn’t get a proper amount of screentime. From one perspective, it’s too much: A tangential point about society that hijacks the film from its other, more important, threads. From another perspective, it’s not enough: Law’s dubious intentions are never clear, so you waste a lot of time wondering whether to root for his struggle against the government or hate him for lying to so many people.

Still, with some fleshing out, that storyline could have been saved. Despite a fine performance and a characteristically captivating presence, Marion Cotillard is wasted as an WHO agent trying to track down the source of the disease. At one point her storyline is dropped long enough for you to forget about it completely, then picked back up before being abandoned for good, no semblance of a conclusion ever to form. In fact, most of the movie has this sort of structureless feel to it. I admire that writer Scott Z. Burns tried to fit so much in, but somewhere along the line he forgot to include a climax. There is no exciting turn of events, no tragic ending, no huge twist. Jennifer Ehle eventually finds a cure, and the world is (presumably) saved. The film is over before you even realize that you’re being robbed of a climax. It’s not terribly offensive, it’s just anticlimactic and a little bewildering.

Writing aside, the other aspects of the film have their ups and downs. Up is Soderbergh’s directing, combining stylized montages, POV shots from infected victims, and constant close-ups of hands and the surfaces they’re always touching. The downsides include the overbearing electronica music that sounds like it was ripped from some early 2000s computer game, and the onscreen font that seriously had to come from MS Paint.

Contagion is a film surpassed by its premise. After an enthralling first hour, the movie loses pace, and the aimlessness of its many subplots begins to make itself apparent. By time the credits roll, you’ll have grown disappointed in the lost potential. Contagion isn’t a bad movie, but it’s way more mediocre than it should have been.

Final rating: 6.5/10

–James A. Janisse

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3 responses

  1. ryancrum

    Disappointing to hear it could have done better… Still gunna go see it myself, and give it a shot.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    • ryancrum

      BESIDES. some of us like overbearing electronica music from video games. It makes me nostalgic!

      September 12, 2011 at 11:56 pm

  2. Nice review. Soderbergh’s Contagion offers little new about fear and horror but his behind-the-camera ability to be fresh — along with help from an all-star cast — elevates his thriller from boredom, if only just slightly. Check out my review when you get a chance!

    September 13, 2011 at 1:20 am

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