Originally Reviewed – 9/26/2011
Every few years or so, Hollywood decides to kill the world. Ever since the first ever disaster movie, 1924’s The Last Man On Earth to more recent efforts like I Am Legend, 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil series, filmmakers have often fantasized about a world afflicted by plague, pestilence and natural disaster. That said, it’s been about five years since 2008, the “Year Of Airborne Sickness” which saw the release of such films as Doomsday, Blindness, The Happening, Quarantine (a remake of REC) and the A&E reimagining of The Andromeda Strain. After that, mankind was relatively safe from the ravages of invisible threats, that is until Steven Soderbergh released his 2011 film, Contagion, a thought provoking yet bland film about an easily transmitted virus ravaging the world’s population.
Featuring an ensemble cast of usually fine actors, Contagion opens with the story of Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Beth is off doing business, among other things, in Hong Kong and upon returning to her Minnesota home, develops a case of the sniffles. Of course, as the film’s title suggests, this seemingly benign illness quickly turns into a strange disease that nobody has ever seen before. This sets in motion a mad chase by the Center for Disease Control to try and contain this newly discovered sickness before it infects the entire world. From this one plot point, literally six different story points branch off. To fight this new affliction, you have the head of the CDC trying to keep a nation under control (Laurence Fishburne), a plucky doctor hell bent on finding a cure (Jennifer Ehle) and two field agents doing the ground work, one in Hong Kong (Marion Cotliard) and the other in Minnesota (Kate Winslet). Add to that a muck raking blogger trying to get to the truth (Jude Law) and Beth’s seemingly immune husband who just wants to keep his family safe (Matt Damon) and you have a tangled mess of storylines, none of which ever really hold together or hold your attention.
That said, the main narrative drive of the movie, the search for the virus’ antidote, is done rather well. The film takes great pains to make sure the scientific jargon makes sense and, thanks to a well researched screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, the film succeeds at that aim. Never once are you confused over the science, even when they throw around medical terms and rush around laboratories. The very idea of a deadly virus simply appearing is an inherently scary one and as a description of that terror, Contagion takes a very adult and honest position. For example, this virus is never described as a “world killer”, it simply could off a quarter of the population. This grounding in reality brings about some the film’s best moments, which includes the social backlash of word getting out. The fix takes time and in the year or so depicted in the film, we see humanity at its most base, fighting for supplies, looting homes and existing in a general sense of panic. Although I could criticize the fact that they never show the more empathetic side of society, a side that we’ve seen through our own crises, this natural panic is important in giving the film some spark and life.
And why would that be important in a film about a deadly disease ravaging the world’s population? Because you sure don’t get any sort of excitement out of the people affected by it. The problem with having so many storylines and characters is that none of them ever have time to develop, creating a disaster impacting people we really don’t care about. Storylines snap off and pick up an hour later, main characters are describable only by their jobs and even Matt Damon, the character we spend the most time with, comes off disinterested in the events affecting his family. Only Jude Law, in the role of the anti-establishment blogger, injects any personality or life into his character, a character that’s really only there to provide the conspiracy theorist angle. While Damon does finally start to show a hint of emotion towards the end, it’s too little too late for the film. If it weren’t for movie poster wow, Soderbergh could have left at least two of these storylines on the cutting room floor, allowing the reaming characters to breathe a bit. The result is a tensionless film that’s almost as sterile as the hazard suit wearing scientists finding the cure or the bottles of Purell it’s constantly shilling.
Make no mistake, I enjoy most of these actors and I really enjoy Soderbergh as a director. He has made some amazing films in the past and will continue to make amazing films in the future. The problem is, Soderbergh eschews character development for solid film structure and the result is a movie that has all the tension and intrigue of a medical procedural. Interesting, yes, but emotionally involving? Not even close. Despite the weakness of the main cast, the film does have a fairly interesting storyline attached to it, and although the ending is obvious as most of these films are, the way it investigates the solving of the riddle is fun to watch. In the end, Contagion is opportunity squandered by below average acting, very poor characterization and more plot points than an Ayn Rand novel. Mission accomplished, by the way, in getting me to stop touching my face so often. Just would’ve been better if the movie had shown me a good time while teaching me to do so.
Score – 60%