Midweek Movie Review: Contagion

When it comes to mainstream Hollywood releases, very often it seems like movies for thinking adults are only released during 3 months of the year, typically around the December to February Awards Season. The rest of the year it’s just superheroes, explosive action flicks, safe family fare and gross-out sex comedies. Well, Contagion, certainly satisfies the entertainment needs of mature, cerebral cinemagoers, reining in all excess to present a (mostly) realistic take on a disease-themed disaster movie.

Contagion is directed by Steven Soderbergh, the multi-award winning filmmaker who has already demonstrated his ability to deftly manage giant all-star casts, and continent-spanning tales, in both Traffic and the Ocean’s 11 trilogy. Soderbergh puts that experience to good use here, in a medical drama-thriller that chronicles the emergence and rapid global spread of a SARS-like virus that is not only highly, highly contagious but also boasts a fatality rate of 25-30% – given there is no existing treatment and human immune systems have no response to it.

In the film’s multiple, interweaving storylines Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard and Elliott Gould play scientists and doctors racing to decipher the virus, halt its spread and find a cure. Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, meanwhile, represent ordinary people affected by the pandemic and the society-ending panic that ensues, and Jude Law is the big mouth pommie blogger (complete with bad teeth) who helps to incite the chaos for personal gain.

As I’ve already mentioned, Contagion is an exceptionally restrained movie, prioritising intellect and moderation in its depiction of events – which heightens the film’s overall sense of realism. It’s admirable in an entertainment medium that so often chooses muscled gung ho men of action as its heroes to here instead pick quiet, selfless scientists as the protagonists. Although I watched the film with a lab worker who shot down the science of the disease (immunity doesn’t mean you’ll never be a carrier, for example), for a casual viewer Contagion carries a strong sense of credibility. It’s one of the strongest things about the film, and it helps to make the planet-wide surge of plague even more unnerving.

At the same time, I would also argue that Contagion is perhaps a bit too restrained at times, particularly on the “feeling” front. It’s as if Soderbergh has taken the film’s icy Winter setting as an emotional tone for the entire project, when the film could have done with a bit more warmth or fiery reaction to hook the viewer. For example, Fishburne, who is a cool, calm and collected Centre for Disease Control head, barely blinks when his fiancĂ© is attacked in their home. It doesn’t ring true.

The social breakdown – the closure of supermarkets; looting; police, firefighters and medical staff abandoning their posts – also doesn’t apparently impact as much on people as you would expect. As uncomfortable as I felt at times watching Contagion, I should have been squirming on the edge of my seat as the pandemic accelerated and desperation took over. Emotionally disconnected from the events onscreen, I never did.

As it stands, Matt Damon’s character fills most of Contagion's “identifiable, ordinary person” emotional requirements. Kate Winslet is more memorable though as a tragic, driven figure who always puts the needs of others before her own. And Ehle (from the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries) is probably the film's most likeable character, hands on with the virus and radiating an unusual deadpan glee about the challenge. In terms of the other big names in the cast, they don’t have enough screen time to make much of an impression. Cotillard, as a World Health Organisation epidemiologist, is saddled with the weakest storyline, mostly because we see too little of it to actually care.

Contagion is definitely one of the better films of 2011 – thoughtful and well thought out. However, while its lack of action scenes is never a problem, the project just seems to be lacking that final bit of “oomph” to elevate it from Very Good to Exceptional... which would be accomplished by satisfying both mind and heart.


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