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TBTS Reviews: Contagion

September 12, 2011


It would be too easy, and also false, to call marketing for Steven Soderbergh’s outbreak movie “viral.”  (The living advertisements for the film were bacterial and fungal, anyway.)  Even so, I’m surprised I had heard of this movie only a month or so ago, since I’m a sucker for almost any disease epidemic movie.

Before you get too excited, realize that you’ve seen this movie before, just not done in quite this manner.  Soderbergh’s handling of nearly any subject matter means it will be well-thought, detailed, complex and interwoven, even a little slow.  Contagion is all those, but it doesn’t fit together as well as Syriana, Traffic, and other Soderbergh work.  It avoids the action-movie bravado of Outbreak: there are no fuel-air bombs incinerating unfortunate villages, no attack helicopters annihilating people trying to break quarantine, no villainous government operatives engaging in heinous cover-ups (or are there?).  Instead, Contagion walks us through 130-something days of what would really happen if a deadly, worldwide epidemic actually occurred.  It examines how the CDC and other governmental agencies must figure out how the pathogen’s behavior; the feelings of frustration and helplessness in isolating and sequencing the virus; finding, mass-producing, and distributing a vaccine, all the while knowing that every day that they fail, another 20,000 people die.  It moves somewhat like a medical procedural, and in doing so sacrifices much of its urgency for realism, which is both its strength and weakness.  The short and perfunctory scenes of riot and social unrest seem tacked on out of obligation, and certainly aren’t the drivers of tension in the movie.  You might still bite your nails—if you dare to touch your face ever again after seeing this movie—but not for the usual reasons.

As in Syriana and Traffic, Soderbergh (and writer Scott Burns) try to tell a larger story by focusing on intertwining individual stories.  It works in those two movies because they deal with multifaceted, controversial social issues in ways that allow the viewer to see the complexities and shades of grey.  Contagion struggles within this narrative structure, however, mostly because of the subject matter: when more than 20 million people die, how can you care about one more than another?  It’s all terribly unfair, but you can’t argue with a virus or write a concerned letter to a protein.  The only thing to get mad at in Contagion is that people close to the decision-makers get some warning, and not even that much, to help save themselves.  Not to profit, not to consolidate power—just to give them a slightly better chance to survive.  Instead, we get a major subplot about a conspiracy-theorist blogger (played by Jude Law, complete with a prosthetic crooked tooth!  Oh those wacky bloggers!) who may or may not have his heart in the right place and may or may not be correct about government cover-ups and deception, but who pockets enough opportunistic cash to make you wonder.  We also get a minor and completely vestigial subplot about the kidnapping of an investigator (Marion Cotillard) who ends up with a bit of Stockholm Syndrome.

Too much of the movie feels forced: the ill-fitting and somewhat distracting soundtrack, the obligatory heart-warming “human interest” scenes, the aforementioned subplots.  Soderbergh had a tough job redoing a done-to-death story, and does come through on a few fronts.  He has no qualms about showing the deaths of major characters, kids, and pregnant women—because that’s exactly what would happen.  He’s not afraid to show the tedium and despair in trying to stop something that could wipe out 70 million people and alter for a hundred years the way the entire human race interacts.  I’m just not convinced that we needed another movie just for that.

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