The 21st Century Epidemic … Uncertainty

Contagion (September 9, 2011)     4/5

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s latest ensemble film, is basically an unexpected triumph.  Despite a cliché-ridden topic (the global spread of an infectious virus) and the formulaic, interlocking storytelling style (complete with class-act performers in odd-job roles), this modernized, digital thriller still remains one of the most entertaining films of the year, as indicated by the praise it received at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.  It features one hell of an opening sequence, sandwiched by a shocker of an ending.  Luckily, that is supplemented by the equally unpredictable stuff in the middle.

We open with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a businesswoman who has just returned from Hong Kong.  Although she feels slightly under the weather, little does she know that she is carrying a fomite transmission virus, one that she will not only bring home to the household of her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), but also transmit into a global epidemic in the era of 9/11, Katrina, and of course, swine flu.  The opening sequence is like nothing that comes to recent memory: a fast-paced, thrilling chain of events where we literally see the virus spread.  Soderbergh’s camera captures everything Beth touches, and soon, it becomes obvious we’re all screwed.  A colorful cast of characters then becomes involved, including a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard), a CDC honcho (Laurence Fishburne), an online blogger (Jude Law), and an Epidemic Intelligence Service doctor, played by Kate Winslet.

Some performances are weaker than others, namely Jennifer Ehle as a CDC scientist and Elliott Gould as a professor who makes a key discovery.  Ehle simply seems bored stating her techno-jargon, while Gould, a Soderbergh favorite (think Reuben from the Ocean’s series), seems like a last-minute addition just for a quick laugh.  Jude Law, meanwhile, as freelance reporter Alan Krumwiede, provides the film’s most intriguing performance, as well its most compelling subplot.  Krumwiede holds the common conspiracy that pharmaceutical companies are withholding a cure in order to obtain more funds from non-effective drugs, a factor that he may even lie to promote online … or just become a household name.  This is an underplayed aspect of the film, but effectively done.  Meanwhile, the ladies also give credible performances.  Cotillard is convincing as a woman whose moral values are soon put into global perspective, while Winslet is as good as ever, playing a doctor who soon must confront a fate she never thought would be placed in front of her.  Fishburne and Damon also give decent performances, however uninteresting they may seem when compared with the rest of the cast.

Maybe if the film had relied more on character study than consistent, scientifically-accurate dialogue, there may have been more room for onscreen ingenuity.  However, as the final script now reads (written by The Informant!’s Scott Z. Burns), there is a relative lack of the melodrama typical of a movie with a “multiple character story” premise.  In fact, Contagion contorts that formula quite well, replacing action sequences and artificial horror clichés with scenes of taut dialogue and intense, brooding tension.  For the most part, this is a drama.  Of course, the film must also find an emotional center, which Matt Damon’s character, a humble man who has just lost his possibly adulterous wife, certainly provides.  Damon is a great actor, whose subpar performances in bad movies (such as Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter) are still entertaining to watch.  Although he provides nothing fabulous here, the sense of humanity obtained through his persona provides audience satisfaction, which is turned completely upside-down by a terrifically executed final scene.  So is the case with Contagion overall.  Just when you think you have determined the formula, it kicks you in the ass.

Steven Soderbergh is quite a creative force in Hollywood, ranging from independent film (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Schizopolis, The Girlfriend Experience), to artsy genre epics (Solaris, Che), to ensemble, star-driven films (Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic).  Yet I still believe he has not been given his due by the industry.  Like he did in Traffic, the Michael Douglass-starring crime-drama that earned the director his first and only Oscar, Soderbergh has the intelligence to use digital cinematography in films that aren’t special-effects driven, therefore allowing him to play with color, lighting, and tone (the same was accomplished large-scale in his two-part Che).  Here it is used to almost convince us we are watching a student-film, a document of a day-by-day outbreak that never falls into a frenzy of self-parodying mockumentary.  Instead, it takes us places we believe we have never gone before.

According to Contagion, this is a world in which we are never sure of anything … and the results can be deadly.  Just as we are never certain of Krumwiede’s conspiracy, we also never know of Mitch’s questionable relationship with his wife.  Just like the characters, we are left to judge this life for ourselves.  Although the film may be close to scientific perfection, as well as a proper tale of how such a virus would spread in our modern world, this is not the film’s most interesting aspect.  Contagion is a film about the people living in our world, and how they react to the knowledge that may or may not be there.  We all have fears, regrets, and desire for redemption.  Soderbergh presents this as simply as possible.  Because of this factor, the film basically ends the way it begins.  Panic and social anarchy may one day drag us down, but maybe we will be saved.  Maybe we will find emotional peace before we die.  Either way, we’re still screwed.

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