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Contagion

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011 5:12 pm—Film

Contagion (USA/United Arab Emirates 2011, Sci-Fi/Thriller), Writer: Scott Z. Burns; Director: Steven Soderbergh

Walking out of the theatre after having seen Contagion, my first thought was, “What’s the point in making that?”

Not that the film wasn’t expertly made.

Contagion travels the world in pursuit of a host of characters dealing with the outbreak of a new virus called MEV-1, a deadly hybrid of bat, pig and human flu strains. It’s directed by the talented, inventive and versatile Steven Soderbergh, who gives Ang Lee a run for his money when it comes to range (Soderbergh helmed Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, among many others). It’s written by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant), who’s known for his highly intelligent scripts. And it features a jaw-dropping cast that includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne… Even supporting roles are filled by the likes of Bryan Cranston and John Hawkes (exceptional in Winter’s Bone—see the Winter’s Bone review from August 2010—and Me and You and Everyone We Know—see the Me and You and Everyone We Know review from November 2007).

On top of that, Contagion’s score is cool and fitting. And given the number of principal characters the film checks in with, its pacing is excellent, hitting on subtext and events that occurred off-screen with just the right touch. All in all, it’s a very sleek production.

But for all its technical prowess, the film lacks any real emotional punch. This is due partly to the volume of characters we’re presented with, but also to the way in which they’re treated. It’s as if they’re being reported on by an objective observer. Rather than creating any strong attachment to the characters, the film offers a fairly detached account of what would most likely happen—or in some cases, what has happened—in the event of an outbreak.

That ability to project what would most likely occur in the real world was precisely what I liked about Neill Blomkamp’s remarkable alien flick District 9 (see the District 9 review from September 2009). But in that case, it was based on something, well, alien to planet Earth. (District 9 also succeeds in creating a far greater emotional hook with its story and characters.) With MEV-1, we’ve seen similar scenarios played out in real life, with outbreaks such as H1N1 and the bird flu. So, in spite of the film’s many great aspects, Contagion left me wondering: “Why bother?”

I mentioned this to my sister as we left the theatre and she argued that the point is simply to present a scenario, as is the case with almost any movie. Still, I came away feeling empty, and that’s rarely the case with a film I consider to be “good.” With Contagion, there was no dramatic pull, no feelings elicited, not even—for lack of a better word—a resounding message. It didn’t make me care. It did, however, make me wish I could interview Soderbergh or Burns to ask why they wanted to tell this story.

Presumably the film’s narrative structure is meant to parallel the way the virus works: logically, without emotion, moving from person to person and sometimes back again. If that was the thinking behind such a removed approach to storytelling, it makes sense to me. But it doesn’t change the fact that Contagion left me cold.

Given all that, I’m struck by the odd choice of taglines for the film: “Nothing spreads like fear.” I never got a strong sense of that fear, even when the looting and murdering began; those activities were underplayed and presented in an almost clinical manner. But I guess “Nothing provokes thought like hyper-intellectual filmmaking and experimentation in narrative presentation” doesn’t exactly flow lovingly off the tongue…

It’s probably unclear from this review whether or not I recommend Contagion, and that could render this post as pointless as the film itself. I’ll try to remedy that: I think I recommend Contagion. It’s a very well made production, and a good study in dialogue, direction, editing, score, acting, cinematography… But otherwise, it’s kind of like watching the news, except that it’s fiction so you don’t really need to know about it.

I can’t imagine how bad a film would have to be to keep me from wanting to see a cast like that. And having Soderbergh at the helm never hurts. So if you appreciate great actors or are a fan of the director, go for it. Or if you’re in the mood for a sociological study, give it a whirl. If none of those things reel you in, it might not be your best bet.

Put it this way: I don’t regret having seen it, but I won’t be in a rush to watch it a second time on video. Call it a rental.

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I came across an interesting article about Contagion in the Atlantic that was written by an epidemiologist. The most salient point to me is the unfortunate tendency the public has to dismiss public health organizations as somewhat extraneous when outbreaks don’t play out in the worst-case scenario. As Dr. Larry Madoff points out, recent outbreaks were contained because the regulating bodies did their jobs very well, not because the viruses didn’t pose a legitimate threat. Worth a read, I think.

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