Opens today… reposting my review for that reason…
Despite the strength of its core onscreen and offscreen talents (at least 5 Academy Award winners, 2 Academy Award nominees, an Emmy Award winner and nominee), Steven Soderbergh’s global pandemic thriller Contagion is surprisingly banal.
It’s certainly a well-produced, more than competent work, technically sound, etc; I’d be surprised if it wasn’t, given the skilled cast and crew involved in its making. However, it just felt rather flat, and failed to really sink its teeth into me.
I’d say that, in looking over Soderbergh’s oeuvre (and for the record, I’m a fan of the man’s work), the film that Contagion will likely immediately draw comparisons to would be Traffic – the film for which he won an Academy Award for directing. Just as Traffic explored the modern day American war on drugs through separate though interconnected plotlines, Contagion examines (on a personal, national and global level) a viral epidemic, weaving several independent concurrent story strands that intersect, whether directly or incidentally.
Yet Traffic felt far more inventive and engaging to me than Contagion does, which clearly wanted to address its subject as a 21st century probability, and all that entails, with respect to advances in technology – particularly technology that allows for speedier distribution of information, i.e. the web, cell phones that are no longer built just for voice communication, etc – all as challenges to so-called “old media” (newspapers notably), as any one with a camera, computer, broadband data connection, will and opportunity can command millions of eyeballs practically overnight.
Yet I couldn’t get over the fact that the film felt dated to me; like it would have maybe resonated more with me if I saw it 10 to 15 years ago. And that’s likely partly due to the fact that we’ve been *entertained* by numerous movies about epidemics (pre- and post-apocalyptic, whether originating on earth or alien), especially in the last 10 to 15 years, that any new titles exploring the subject would have to make an attempt to be so original that it separates itself from the near-deluge.
And for Contagion, that would have to be Soderbergh’s commitment to approaching the matter in an “ultra-realistic manner,” as he put it; for, while it is a grim fictional tale, the story is grounded in *real* science and *real* possibilities, in comparison to the Resident Evil franchise of epidemic films for example; Definitely not what I’d call “ultra-realistic” depictions of a viral outbreak. Or even Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which I enjoyed.
The catastrophe is tracked from several different points of view that, of I think most significance, cross class boundaries, as we are privy to how the pandemic affects global citizens of different socio-economic groups, the resources available to each, and the actions taken, inspired by that availability or lack thereof. Characters are put into situations that encourage them to make choices with potentially reverberating consequences felt exponentially.
And Sodebergh ensures that the men, women and children that populate the international list of cities the film takes place in, look and feel like *real* people – from the everyman intent on protecting his family by any means necessary, played by an unshaven, somewhat husky Matt Damon; to the Deputy Director of the Center For Disease Control (CDC) tasked with leading the effort to protect, inform and set public policy in the USA all-while the crisis escalates rapidly – played by Laurence Fishburne, who is naturally convincing as a commanding authority figure; to Kate Winslet’s baby-faced eager, fearless CDC officer, who serves as a kind of gateway for the audience – essentially ensuring that the audience understands the *real* science behind the pandemic without getting weighed down by it; and others.
Shooting with the RED camera again, utilizing what felt like a heavy dose of close-ups, Soderbergh captures (and maybe even emphasizes) all those *real* facial characteristics that are often suppressed with makeup work and soft lighting. There’s no vanity nor self-consciousness here. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has a documentary-like quality to it (not quite), but there’s a flatness and coldness to the images, along with the naturalistic performances from much of the cast, that help give the film a certain verisimilitude; however, with one notable exception: Jude Law’s confrontational freelance journalist, representing new media – perhaps partly molded out of Julian Assange’s DNA – a young, bold, brash messianic type who runs a popular whistleblower website, with the purpose of forcing US government transparency; specifically, exposing what he believes to be the unspoken truths about the growing epidemic.
Maybe it was Jude Law’s interpretation of the material, the script itself, or possibly Soderbergh’s intent, but the character felt so manufactured to me; almost a caricature of your local overzealous conspiracy theorist actually; I didn’t believe him entirely, and he stood out at times, though not in the most flattering way.
Regardless, for all those attempts at *realism,* the film failed to have the kind of effect on me that Soderbergh and company were definitely going for, given what I read from them in the press notes handed to us prior to the screening.
To assist in ratcheting up the tension as the film progresses, which also puts the epidemic in quantitative terms, the use of numbers are of significance in the film – from the continuously-present notification of how many days have passed since ground zero or patient zero (the first known person to have come in contact with the deadly virus, and when and where exactly that happened), the virus’ incubation period, the increasing numbers of fatalities, and more. We are on constant alert, from the film’s opening moments, until its denouement. However, the tension isn’t so unrelenting or unnerving, and I can’t especially say that I came away from the experience of the film feeling anymore concerned of the biological reality of the situation depicted in it, nor secure in our ability to overcome that potential reality. And, again, I attribute that to the fact that maybe the fact that I’ve already been *scared* enough and prepped into believing something like this could very well happen today, tomorrow, or anytime in our immediate or distant future, given the wealth of viral pandemic movies we’ve seen released in the last 15 years; this one just didn’t elicit much more than a shrug from me.
And Soderbergh doesn’t help the issue when he chooses to show us Day 1 of Contagion. The film begins on Day 2 of the epidemic, I suppose a tactic meant to leave us wondering what exactly happened on Day 1, as the movie progresses; and it ends with Day 1, showing exactly how the deadly virus begins its international trip – a sequence I really would have preferred not to see, because it was quite underwhelming, and, having now seen the film in its entirety, wouldn’t have had anymore of an impact on the story if it had begun presenting us with Day 1’s details.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I sighed when Ground Zero, the virus’ origin is revealed at the end of the film (Day 1). I won’t say where, but, I will say that, like a similar epidemic movie before it, 1995’s Outbreak, the virus didn’t originate in the USA. Does it ever? Or is this just the kind of thing that happens most frequently in those other *lesser* places where those *lesser* people live, until someone or something (a Monkey in the case of Outbreak) begins its spread?
I think it would have been far more interesting to me if the mystery remained just that – a mystery; if we never find out where the virus originated, and if a cure is never found – at least, not within the movie itself. That would’ve been much more thrilling and unnerving I believe, instead of the nice tidy ending we’re presented with, in which those 2 crucial plot hurdles are resolved, much to the relief of all those involved. Clearly, the style in which the film is made is meant to help give the audience as realistic a feel for the global chaos a situation like this could create; but how much more gripping might it have been with those 2 uncertainties left as uncertainties, as the world quickly falls to its knees out of its own arrogance, complacency, ignorance of and frustration at the microscopic element that quickly and efficiently kills us off.
As the film progresses, you can’t help but feel that there will indeed be some resolution before its running time ends, and that lessens any thrill one might feel otherwise.
The film also comments on and makes comparisons between the dangers of the virus itself and the equal danger that the distribution of data about the existence of the virus (whether factual or speculation) presents. Results of both could be fatal. So it’s hard to say whether Soderbergh was, in some way, criticizing the web as this untrustworthy and potentially dangerous place, given that the one person who represents that form of new media, Jude Law’s character, in the end, turns out to be just as vulnerable to the capitalism that he riles (or pretends to rile) against via his popular website. He’s essentially a hypocrite; and Law’s portrayal of him, or rather Soderbergh’s direction of him (even his given name Krumwiede – pronounced “Krumwiddy“) further suggests that he isn’t someone to be taken seriously.
Score one for *old media* I guess.
Lastly, yes, Sanaa Lathan is in Contagion, though in a very limited role. As already noted, she plays Laurence Fishburne’s wife, and is yet another strand in the film’s web of storylines, there really to personalize Fishburne’s own involvement in the larger scheme of things. And I should say that one of the highlights for me in watching the film was to discover that Fishburne has a much more involved role than the trailer suggests, and that I assumed. He’s actually, we could say, the central piece of this puzzle, with strings attached to almost every branch of it, and he probably has more screen time and dialogue than anyone else – well maybe Matt Damon’s everyman stands out over the others as well.
But, overall, as I begun this review stating, it’s a well-made film; for the most part, the acting is strong, Soderbergh, who also shot the film, certainly knows his way around a camera. The production itself is solid. However, it’s just not all that engaging, sometimes dull, and it felt like it belonged in a past period; at least for me. So, I certainly won’t say it’s not a good movie; It just lacks elements that I think would have been necessary for it to have the kind of effect the filmmakers were hoping it would have over its audience.
I’d say further that, really folks, if you’re not already concerned enough of the possibility of a real-life global deadly epidemic, especially as governments the world over continue to take the threat of biological warfare into serious consideration and ready themselves for it, then, my friends, a movie like this probably won’t do much to change that.
But see it for yourselves… it opens nationwide this Friday, September 9th.