(Originally posted on 9-17-11)
Contagion, if you don’t know, is a virus film. Not a virus like the posts on Facebook with the crazy demanding headlines and the semi-alluring thumbnails that none of my “friends” seem able to resist clicking on.
It is an old school procedural that tracks a worldwide pandemic from patient zero all the way through to the (temporary) reprieve of a cure, and the loss of millions of lives in the interim.
It’s not an end of the world movie contrary to popular opinion, there is no endless melodrama as we track different characters that get caught up in their own personal issues against the backdrop of a dying world – it is a pretty straight forward procedural where the stakes are high and the drama is grounded.
The story, such as it is, follows different individuals from the CDC and WHO as they first become aware of the outbreak and then as they rush to find a way to fight it.
I would consider giving a spoiler warning but I think this is truly an unspoilable film, at least with regard to surprises. There is nothing I can say that really would spoil anything, because the beauty of it is in the journey and not in big revelations, or large character moments, or surprise information appearing at the last moment.
The whole thing starts off with Gwyneth Paltrow sitting in an airport lounge after having had an illicit encounter with an old flame. She is on her way back from a business trip in Asia and is on an extended layover (That’s what she said!!) in Chicago. She arrives at home and is sniffly and whiney and generally lacking in energy, so naturally her husband (Matt Damon in another solid, understated performance) assumes she is her regular Gwyneth self.
I was going to do a quick character break down of each major player in the movie, but the truth is, I don’t feel like doing that anymore. The movie isn’t about the characters so much as it is about the big idea (how the real world would react to a global pandemic today) and not about any single person saving the day. So, suffice it to say, the movie mostly follows the scientists and, at a high level, the science.
When I first started writing this review (a now discarded draft, and why it has taken me a week to deliver this) I felt strongly that I was going to approach it as an argument proclaiming Steven Soderbergh as one of the few film auteurs that we have working in America today (Ocean’s 12 notwithstanding). But as I started to build out my support points and examples from the movie, I realized that even though I still firmly believe that he is an Auteur (in the classical sense) this really isn’t the right movie to point to for the average movie going audience.
And that is because the film spectacularly underplays itself. It is everything that a movie (marketed as it has been as a terrifying disease thriller) like this is not supposed to be.
This is a daring film in that it actively avoids as much as possible the clichés that are endemic (ha!) to all big Hollywood movies. Character arcs are limited to those that are pretty much directly involved in the battle against this microscopic killer, with very little personal life intruding upon the narrative.
I don’t mind the lack of character development because that isn’t the point of the movie – that is why you have such a solid cast that can bring a sense of history to their roles, so that we can avoid having to sit through time consuming and ultimately useless character exposition.
Soderbergh, and to the point of my original approach to this review, never seems to make the obvious choice. In Contagion, the easy choice would have been to heighten the transmission of the virus, play up the messiness of it all. Coughing, slow motion spray of germs, runny noses, smeared snot. Instead there is a very contained feel to everything, almost antiseptic in style and approach. And this approach very clearly ties into the way the protagonists, mostly researches & scientists, experience the world. Codifying, annotating, clearly trying to fit unknown pieces of the puzzle together to give them a partial picture of something that they can then just begin to understand.
He seems to approach each film as an individual exercise in craft, rather than another cranking up of the big engine of mass commercialism. He seems to enjoy the challenge of pushing his abilities by taking something familiar and expressing it in cinematic terms without feeling obligated to adhere to a template, or forcing in drama for drama’s sake.
He makes the movies he wants to make, whether it is a star studded action comedy or a little slice a life, he does it his way and not to template.
Contagion is a great movie, but it isn’t the movie you think it will be based on the marketing campaign. Just be aware of that before seeing it, but definitely go see it.