Contagion: Soderbergh’s Virus Film Will Leave You Cold

Soderbergh made exactly the type of film he wanted with Contagion. It’s a star-studded affair that is unlike any other “end of the world” sort of film, filled with science, factoids, and a behind-the-scenes look at government, medicine, and corporations that other filmmakers wouldn’t dare tackle. I admire a lot about the film, specifically the fact that it stays interesting throughout. However, because Soderbergh wanted to take a procedural approach, the movie never develops its characters fully or finds much cinematic ground to stand on– plotlines get cut short in favor of more science. While the movie achieves its stylistic goals, it won’t stick with you– it’ll pass in 24 hours.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from a business trip to Hong Kong and suddenly dies. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is apparently immune to this disease, but it suddenly begins sweeping around his hometown. It begins happening in several places worldwide, so Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the CDC assigns Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), an epidemic specialist, to do some research on what this virus is, and two lab scientists (Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin) get to work on the vain attempt to cook up a vaccine. Meanwhile, a worker from the WHO (Marion Cotillard) goes to Hong Kong to attempt to find this disease’s origins, and a blogger (Jude Law) rises to fame after posting the first video of the disease and ranting about Big Pharma’s cover-up and refusal to cure the virus in hopes of making more money.

There’s a lot going on here with this multi-layered narrative but Soderbergh does an admirable job keeping everyone’s current situation clear as time progresses (with one notable exception, explained later). Damon is as close to a central protagonist as there is, and he carries what little emotional weight the film has– are there any movie stars today that are better than Matt Damon? He’s so terrific at the power of suggestion and by projecting warmth or coldness with just the slightest change of expression. Winslet does strong work too in a smaller role, managing to become one of the few ever “hot scientists” in cinema history to seem like a believable scientist. The cinematography and music are both top drawer, and the script is focused and sharp, dropping gems about epidemiology every couple of minutes, making the moviegoer acutely aware of how realistic this premise is. Films like Outbreak and 28 Days Later sensationalize viral apocalypse, lulling you into feeling safe by storing this possibility in the part of your brain that thinks it happens “only in the movies.” This film is a splash of cold water in the face.

Cold is the operative word, however, as the focus on science eliminates the moments that occur in most films which allow us to connect emotionally to the characters. Outside of Damon’s discovery that his wife has died, Soderbergh spends many scenes building up to a possibly dramatic scene, only to cut away before the drama occurs. Someone overhears Fishburne tell his wife the gravity of the situation– cut away. Someone is shooting people right near Damon’s house– cut away. Winslet discovers something terrible– cut away. While I admire the technique and sometimes what we imagine could be more terrible than witnessing the drama, in the case of Contagion, I just felt disconnected from the proceedings. The disconnect meant the feeling Soderbergh is going for where you should leave the theater and wash your hands immediately doesn’t sink in.

Even worse, some plotlines are just left to hang and not given the attention they deserve. Cotillard’s character in particular is kidnapped, and then seems to have made a major change in perspective by the next time we see her, but it’s never explained. Considering how much they set up her story, the fact that we only see her in one scene after the kidnapping makes it extremely underwhelming and the whole plotline completely pointless. Fishburne has some drama with his wife as Soderbergh examines how government officials in time of crisis are put under the public eye, but moments where they attain privilege which causes them strife are never affecting. Lathan weeps once or twice and Fishburne remains stoic like his character on CSI, when really this couple could have been the most interesting part of the film. Other actors like John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, and Bryan Cranston show up for a scene or two and are then totally wasted. There’s audience expectation that a character will be important if they see an Academy Award nominated or Emmy Award winning actor in a role, but Soderbergh puts these recognizable faces in inconsequential roles. The sight of comedian Demetri Martin as a lab rat in an inflatable suit will take anyone familiar with his comedy out of the film instantly, though he’s doing a fine job– it’s just an issue of audience expectation that he can’t control.

This paragraph contains two big spoilers, so be forewarned. The first has to do with Jude Law, who really does put on a strong performance (character actor roles bring out the best in him consistently), but the conspiracy blogger character turns out to be not only just as bad as the corporations he rails against, but worse, because the corporations actually have a use in society. This character’s inclusion, especially regarding his quick turn at the end, serves as a tangential condemnation of social media that seems strangely old-fashioned and out-of-touch in comparison to the rest of the film. Finally, we discover that the virus was created not from some random occurrence in nature, but an occurrence in nature that was a result of human interference with nature– specifically, by Paltrow’s company. Is Soderbergh saying we will cause our own demise, and that a virus such as this is us reaping what we sow? The idea that our apocalypse can occur spontaneously in nature and evolve from something we can’t control is FAR scarier, and Soderbergh builds this idea for the entire film until this final sequence, which effectively sweeps the legs out from under everything he’s established.

Soderbergh has made the film he wants to make, it’s clear. Stylistically, he’s in perfect control, the performances are all clear and tonally on the same level, the film looks and sounds immaculate, and people who go into a movie expecting a scientific breakdown of how a viral apocalypse may unfold will certainly be satisfied. However, if you expect any emotional connection or cinematic experience out of Contagion, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. It has the same amount of drama as a bunch of scientists sitting around tables and talking. There’s human drama, but Soderbergh isn’t interested in cinematic drama per se. Everyone spends the whole film desperately wanting to find a cure. I kept desperately wanting to find a character to relate to.

~ by russellhainline on September 15, 2011.

3 Responses to “Contagion: Soderbergh’s Virus Film Will Leave You Cold”

  1. Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. Nice review.

  2. i haven’t watch this yet, but i feel like it’ll be something like Inception. really cool movie with characters you don’t really care. i guess not all movies should require memorable characters.

  3. This is interesting for me to read because I just saw the trailer on TV yesturday. It looked worryingly close to what could happen in reality. I always think the best films are the ones that you feel could really happen somewhere.

    I really like your reviews by the way, they make me want to go straight to the cinema and watch the movie!

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