Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

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A consistent problem in Steven Soderbergh’s glut of features in the run-up to his retirement seems to have been the misuse of a fine premise: here’s the windup, there’s no pitch, you might say. The all-star disaster picture Contagion, a fitfully intelligent bit of mostly justified hysteria about a fearsome infectious disease that wipes out much of the world’s population in a matter of weeks, follows the pattern and structure of the director’s own drug-war drama Traffic — here without the didactism. As in that film, he forms several stories with disparate characters around a loose central concern. And we do mean “concern” literally. If you haven’t washed your hands in the five minutes prior to watching Contagion, prepare to be sufficiently skeeved out to pause the thing and scrub them into oblivion. (My own memorable viewing experience was complicated by the fact that I spent it eating an absolutely delicious pizza, but: digression.)

So it goes that we have Gwyneth Paltrow as an apparently adulterous vacationer whose infection kick-starts the catastrophe, Matt Damon as her befuddled and apparently immune husband who then works out traditional fatherly paranoia on his daughter with the backdrop of the disease only providing an ironic commentary of sorts to all the yawning and texting of adolescence; Laurence Fishburne as a wise but somewhat ethically dubious (kind of?) CDC officer; Kate Winslet as a dedicated epidemic specialist tracking the disease and, in a rather dire and unfortunately believable Ikiru twist, having a hell of a time convincing local government officials to do what’s necessary; Jennifer Ehle as a scientist on the rush for a cure; Jude Law as frighteningly vapid conspiracy moron Alex Jones (yeah, yeah, not by name but we all know it); Marion Cotillard as fuck all if I have any clue what her part of the movie was supposed to mean; and Elliott Gould as Trapper John, who saves the world from destruction.

Soderbergh has fun deconstructing the Hollywood blockbuster-devastation cinema; at nearly every turn, you can sense him examining the many ludicrous elements of pictures like Independence Day, Armageddon and [name your chosen zombie film here] and defiantly choosing to drift toward the less dramatically ludicrous, less dazzling, more rational option. His overuse of color filters will date him forever (Traffic already looks cheap), but he’s more than a competent director, excellent at juggling many elements to make something like a satisfying whole. In this case, his goal is to craft a compassionate film — one that, in the end, celebrates the best of government and various other institutions working together, with the overriding theme that Science Will Save Us. I agree wholeheartedly with this conclusion, but the film in the end is merely decent, not the rip-roaring explosive entertainment I hoped for. Before you protest, I don’t want this to be Independence Day either — the problem is not in content, it’s in structure.

Several of the many characters in this pastiche could be quite interesting if we had more time to explore them. Were we to stay with Winslet or Fishburne for the duration of the picture, it might have been a clinical but potent firecracker on the order of All the President’s Men; there are moments when it seems to be heading in the direction of being a detailed portrait of how a disaster like this is contained and conquered, but then it wanders into its all-too-screenwriterly tropes. Of course Damon’s stressed-out husband is there to remind us of the toll taken on the general public and how family life, in some order, must “go on”… but that’s trite, for one thing, and we don’t need to be reminded of it. And while I truly appreciate the film’s stance toward the anti-vaccination crazies, Jude Law’s scenes are just too overbaked and cartoonish; the more accurate version of his silly douchebag bloggery would be to have him come across as scarily believable — in the context of a vulnerable public, that would sell the point of how easy it is to sickeningly manipulate with mistruth. (It would also render the scenes in which Law goes on TV to yell at CDC officials considerably weightier; I’m thinking something along the lines of the eerie television broadcasts in Dawn of the Dead.)

The stars are uniformly terrific — Paltrow’s performance as Patient Zero is harrowing, her facial contortions unforgettably ghastly — but the numerous characters are so slight and rote as to make it all seem like a standard disaster movie. Every scene seems to be a “fill in the blank,” point A to point B task. We must here establish that the doctor who’s experimented with cell culture is breaking the rules but also may have allowed the cure to be discovered. Now we must show that Winslet’s character’s specialist is too compassionate for her own good, and this leads to her demise. All of the people who populate this overly busy, overstuffed film are cardboard cutouts serving what feels like something of a skeletal plotline, more like a very expensive hypothetical PowerPoint than a movie. And while the preaching of Traffic is gone, the issue that grew out of it remains: while Contagion is designed as popcorn cinema, it just isn’t much fun. But I generally don’t find disaster movies particularly enjoyable anyway — when not ridiculously histrionic, their catalog of miseries just ends up boring me.

With that said, the film is well-acted, noble and entertaining. It comes out swinging on the procedural front and despite the lack of focus, through all the fragments one can see the potential for a masterful thriller. Everything’s just a little too simple and shrill — and too similar to a couple dozen other movies to boot. But once he recovers from the nearly intolerable sap of the U2-soundtracked pseudo-prom-night finale, Soderbergh comes back swinging for one singular moment that almost justifies sitting through the entire film, no matter how much it tries your patience: in the final seconds, he reveals the origin of the disease. It’s a moment of cinematic mastery and it will haunt your sleep, and off you’ll go to wash your hands once again. You might not even want the rest of your pizza.

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