For the germophobes amongst us, you probably want to skip seeing the new thriller, Contagion. Like for life. Never see this film if you’re the type that needs a paper toilet seat cover before sitting down to do their business. Contagion is a movie that makes you reevaluate basic human interaction. You may not leave the house again without covering yourself in plastic and a year’s worth of Purel. Director Stephen Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s Thirteen) has assembled an all-star cast to drop like flies like only Hollywood’s most talented can do. Contagion is an intelligent, unnerving, technically authentic thriller that will make you cringe just watching people cough.
Contagion’s main character is a virus that begins its origin in a Hong Kong casino and quickly spreads from there. A British model takes it to the UK, a Chinese waiter goes home infected, a Japanese businessman keels over dead on a return trip home, and Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from her business tripe back to Minneapolis and goes into seizures. The next day, she’s dead and soon after having her brain dug out for an autopsy. The spooked docs alert the Centers for Disease Control immediately; something is definitely wrong with Paltrow’s brain (insert Coldplay joke here). The head of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his specialists track the expansion of the virus. He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minnesota to coordinate inter-agency action and interview Beth’s husband (Matt Damon), who appears to be immune to the virus. He’s in shock and isolated from his remaining daughter. He’s still trying to make sense of how quickly everything fell apart for his family. Capitalizing on fear, anti-establishment medical blogger Alan Krumweid (Jude Law) steers a panicked public toward a homeopathic medical alternative that he just so happens to have a financial stake with. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to investigate the Hong Kong casino and overview hours of security footage to glean the origins of the virus. But she, like others, soon find themselves in ever-increasing danger as the world races against time to beat this new threat.
For those expecting an action-thriller with plenty of doctors barking moral quandaries and racing against time to escape government agents… you will be sorely disappointed. Contagion is much more cerebral, cool, like a scientific procedural that plays the premise out in a realistic fashion, which means it’s often short the fireworks that mainstream audiences have come to expect from disaster movies. The CDC is really the main setting as they try and determine the origin of the virus, breaking down the virus, and projecting its rate on infection and contamination. Soderbergh has onscreen titles indicating how large the population centers are for the plot settings, reminding us simply with text how vulnerable to danger all those people are. The real pleasure of the film is watching A-level Oscar actors puzzle out how to solve this multi-faceted crisis. The movie does a minimal amount of explanation and expects an audience to be able to keep up with its scientific analysis. Soderbergh’s film is much more in keeping with The Andromeda Strain than Outbreak (find that monkey and all will be happy again!). You witness smart people doing smart things and still making little traction. This isn’t necessarily Irwin Allen territory of disaster. It’s a disaster that seems all too reasonably possible rather than being trapped in the belly of a ship that has turned upside down. Getting sick is a lot harder to avoid especially in our modern world. Globalization has done many wonders for the world, but by making the world a smaller place it also means that we’re all much more susceptible to the spreads of pandemics. No longer can geography be held as a total defense. We’re all one flight away from the spread of the next great illness (as the end credits to Rise of the Planet of the Apes also remind).
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) cast a wide net all over the world to see the ramifications of crisis. Things go rather quickly. By the end of the first week, the CDC is coordinating its resources and media strategy to not inflame panic. Easier said than done when ignorance and fear are in large quantities. The reaction to the news, the intra-government squabbles over resources and money, the exploitation of fear by opportune business types, the rising resentment of those left out of the loop, and even the kidnapping schemes for those known to have access to medicine. Contagion works because it gets the details right without losing track of the big picture. The film feels eerily plausible at every beat. Nurses are on strike refusing to be near the sick until uniform safety protocols are established. Funeral homes refuse to handle infected bodies out of health concerns. These are absorbing details that feel completely authentic yet would easily have been overlooked in other disaster pictures. The movie even addresses recent pandemic fears related to H1N1, SARS, and the perceived “overreaction” when these potential worldwide disasters turned out to be milder bugs. A government agent asks the head of the CDC if some terror organization could have weaponized the bird flu. “They don’t have to. The birds are already doing it,” the CDC head replies.
While Burns lies out a host of characters and scenarios with increasing tension as stakes mount and the death toll rises, Contagion just kind of drifts into an ending for the last 20 minutes. I was expecting another big wallop, some kind of sudden plot turn that reestablished an ongoing threat, but it wasn’t to be. The tension just sorts of lets out slowly like a balloon, playing against movie laws. That means that Contagion, wile tense, eschews a dramatic buildup for a climax. Burns and Soderbergh instead to play out their realistic “what if” experiment to its conclusion, which makes for a realistic if somewhat inert final act. There’s no chasing monkeys or butting with government agents willing to sacrifice infected town for “the good of mankind”; it’s just government employees doing good work and trying to minimize damages. It’s exciting to watch smart characters break down a nasty new virus and try to understand it and get ahead of it, but once they succeed, it’s not as exciting to watch the aftereffects of people getting better and returning to a normal existence (minus 30 million people on the planet – the solution to fixing unemployment?).
Because the emphasis is on the cross-sections of plot and scientific breakdown, the emotional connection to the characters is limited. There are a lot of famous faces that appear in this movie; even bit parts are taken up by the likes of Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock), Enrico Colatoni (TV’s Veronica Mars). Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the closest thing the film has to an emotional center. He’s immune to the virus but he has to watch his family fall apart with the knowledge that his wife was Patient Zero. On top of that, he has to deal with the fact that she was cheating on him. That’s a healthy brew of emotions to confront in such a heightened situation, and Damon does a nice job of putting a human face to the mass tragedy. Winslet (The Reader) is superb as a CDC investigator, so duty-bound that even when she awakes to discover she has become infected she goes through protocol trying to investigate who serviced her room so that others will not share her fate. Law (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably sleazy as a moral relativist trying that uses his army of Internet followers to discredit the government’s response. Fishburne (Predators) has terrific poise as the man in charge of scrambling the response forces, keeping his cool, and being the public face of the government response until an all too human scandal tarnishes him. But perhaps the best performer is Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory, The King’s Speech). She plays one of the chief CDC scientists studying the virus and takes some extreme measures to test a potential vaccine. She has a scene with her sick father that is likely the most emotionally affecting moment in the film. Her sturdy determination even when most vulnerable is selfless.
Contagion is a smart by-the-book procedural thriller that may not be dramatic enough for audiences fed by Hollywood disaster films. The film is far more analytical and detail-oriented to its benefit and sometimes detraction. It’s got stars galore and some plenty of rising tension, but the film also follows a realistic blueprint toward a rapid world response to a new pandemic, which means that well-developed characterization is spared amidst all that fraught scientific lingo. As a result, Contagion feels more like a docu-drama than an amped-up Hollywood thriller with its finger firmly pressed upon American anxieties. Contagion is a bit overextended and data-heavy. It’s a stripped down indie in studio clothing. Soderbergh’s movie is a bit too lean and clinical to be fully satisfying and emotionally engaging, especially with its somewhat inert ending. It’ll sure make you look at free bowls of peanuts differently. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on September 11, 2011, in 2011 Movies and tagged bryan cranston, drama, gwyneth paltrow, john hawkes, jude law, kate winslet, laurence fishburne, marion cotillard, matt damon, outbreak, steven soderbergh, thriller. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.