Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: "Contagion"

A disease pandemic means zombies. That's what the Hollywood of the past decade or so can't seem to get over. Not that there haven't been some good films to come out of the trend (28 Days Later...), but all in all, the disease-equals-zombies movie has been done enough to last us for a while. A movie strictly about disease, however? That's the sort of thing that hasn't been done in a while, so leave it to chameleonic director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's 11, Che) to give us a more grounded take on a viral menace.

Opening on Day 2 of the epidemic, Contagion follows a mysterious viral outbreak whose first victim is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow). As the virus begins to spread, the film travels across the globe, following everyone from health officials (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard), to the possibly infected (Matt Damon), and even a conspiracy theorist/blogger (Jude Law). Some try to find the virus' source, others try to contain its expansion, and some simply try to keep their lives from falling apart.

And, as rendered by Soderbergh and his team, the story is one that keeps its feet firmly on the ground. There are scenes of frustration and panic, even rioting, but Scott Z. Burns' script never gives in to hysteria or melodrama. Contagion isn't concerned with scenes of people becoming violently ill, or gross-out moments (save for maybe one). Instead, it keeps its focus on telling a grounded story about an increasingly aggressive disease. Soderbergh and Burns received cooperation from the CDC, and they've obviously taken the organization's advice seriously; the film feels uncomfortably plausible. Acting as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh captures the surfaces where the virus spreads (or makes contact) with a precision that is uncomfortable, and may very well have you rushing to douse your hands in Purell when the movie is over.

As the film progresses, though, it also starts to run out of steam. The first hour or so, when the disease is still an unknown (and still spreading rapidly) is stronger, but even it has its share of flaws. Though Stephen Mirrione deserves credit for his tight (but not hyper active) editing, he's left trying to cover too many bases. The story of the investigation of the disease, as well as Damon's arc, probably would have been enough to sustain the narrative. Unfortunately, there are two story threads that aren't quite up to snuff.

The first is Law's, which tracks a conspiracy blogger who simultaneously believes that the CDC is in bed with pharmaceutical companies, while trying to sell his own homeopathic treatment. Even though Elliot Gould has an amusing line about why blogging isn't real journalism, the film's use of Law's character feels too easy and too broad. The more I think about Law's scenes, the less I like them. With the clinical distance that Soderbergh is keeping from his subjects, this particular character is only more difficult to remain interested in as time goes on. But then there's Marion Cotillard's story line, which isn't so much useless as it is short-changed. With the strand already kept seemingly on the back burner, the film simply abandons Cotillard's character at two rather crucial points. There was probably an interesting angle to be mined from the arc, but little to nothing is made of it.

These two strands are part of Contagion's Achilles Heel. In trying to be an anti-disaster movie, and avoid sensationalism, Soderbergh and Burns have perhaps gone too far in the other direction. While I respect the film's attempts to ground itself in procedure and science, I can't help but feel that too much time is spent on characters spouting information, which robs them of the chance to, well, act. The script's fixation on the science of the story drains too much life from the characters for any of them to be worth connecting with, save maybe for Damon, Fishburne, and Winslet. Considering that the film is already jumping between and among characters, the problem only gets worse as it goes on, rendering the film's emotional angle void. So even though there is much to respect within Contagion, which ends on an interestingly simple (albeit unsettling) note, from its grounded story telling to its fine technical aspects (kudos to Cliff Martinez's sinister, pulsating score), the overt lack of emotion renders a potentially groundbreaking thriller little more than an antiseptic piece of low-key thriller entertainment.

Grade: B-

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