Review: "Contagion"

I feel like “disease” movies used to be plentiful enough to take up a genre all their own. From The Andromeda Strain to Outbreak, disease flicks ran rampant at one time, reflecting a worldwide fear that seems to have died out with the Swine Flu. As a kid I was somewhat concerned about the Ebola virus. Maybe “concerned” is the wrong word but I was definitely aware of the disease and vigilant in my quest to make sure I never contracted the disease. (Seriously, I knew way more about Ebola than any elementary school kid should ever know.) But I wonder now if pre-adolescents even know what Ebola is. Somewhere along the line disease movies turned into the zombie movie resurgence and Hollywood hasn’t looked back since. As a result, I honestly cannot tell you the last time I watched a movie concerning some sort of virus or outbreak that did not result in the victims becoming zombies or another undead creature. It may well be that Outbreak was the last one I saw (and by the way, there’s nothing wrong with Outbreak; totally acceptable action-thriller). Contagion, then, represents a dying genre that probably needs a bigger push than what this film is capable of giving.

On a business trip to China, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes sick. Upon her return home, what she assumed to be a simple cold begins to ravish her immune system resulting in her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), taking her to the hospital, where she quickly dies. Simultaneously around the globe, others fall ill and die while those who came in contact with them start showing symptoms. The Center for Disease Control takes note and begins investigating only to discover that the virus is brand new and boasts a remarkably high death rate. Before long a worldwide outbreak is underway and it becomes a race between the rapid spread of the virus and the scientists who are working to produce a vaccine.

Steven Soderbergh is, in my book, one of Hollywood’s very, very best directors. He has an outstanding track record and with the exception of a couple of misfires, he always delivers movies that must be considered good or better. He is not, however, predictable. He has taken on a wide range of films in his career, from big budget flicks to barely seen indie dramas. He basically does whatever project he wants to do and does it his way with very little regard to how it will be received by critics and audiences. For example, The Informant! is an odd film with some bizarre quirks that I personally enjoyed but most people (critics and moviegoers alike) didn’t know what do to with it. Did that bother Soderbergh? No, I don’t think it did; he made the film he wanted to make and at the end of the day, that’s all he really cares about. Contagion is quite similar in that way. It poses as a thriller, maybe even a horror film, but it plays out almost like a documentary. It is an INCREDIBLY well-made film with near perfect shot selections and cinematography. (These behind-the-camera techniques are a big part of what makes Soderbergh so great.) The narrative, though, is very slow paced and almost burdensomely methodical, focusing entirely on the virus itself and the search for a cure and leaving almost no room for character development. It isn’t boring but there’s not a whole lot happening, either. As such, from a cinematic perspective, Contagion is a great film but as an experience for the audience, it is only above average.

The lack of humanity is what really holds Contagion back. Despite an incredible cast that includes Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard, there’s not a single performance in this film that warrants attention. That’s because the actors are given almost nothing to do, resulting in the feeling that they’re all just going through the motions. This plays into the documentary feeling but it also leaves a real disconnect between the screen and the audience. I honestly can’t decide if this was Soderberg’s intention or if he just failed to find the mark. Throughout the film’s runtime I kept wanting to buy into the characters, to care about their plight, but I was never given a reason, either organic or manufactured, to do so nor scenes that would illicit any attachment. Characters struggle and die but I didn’t find myself grieving their loss. Near the very end, we are given two very powerful, human moments (one in which Damon absolutely nails it) but by this point I had written off this part of the story and the impact was much less than it should have been. There are numerous storylines that don’t provide much of a payoff, resulting in an ineffectual use of the ensemble method. In hindsight, it might have been a better idea to emphasize a few main characters rather than spread the attention across the global landscape.

Contagion gets it right in a number of places and it is easy to see Soderbergh’s hands at work. There are some spectacular elements within the film that are truly inspired. But a film is only as strong as its weakest link which in this case is an utter lack of connection to the viewer. It is good, not great, worthwhile, but not a must-see.

Grade: B

I’m going to go watch Outbreak now,