Don’t worry: I’m not going to compare Contagion to Outbreak. There’s been a lot of talk and a lot of hate directed at the trailers for Steven Soderbergh’s new out-of-control-disease thriller. The handful of times I’ve seen the preview in a theatre, audiences straight-up laughed at parts that I’m sure the director had meant to be dramatic—likely because, thanks to Outbreak, The Stand, The Walking Dead, and a host of other a-pop-calyptic fantasies, people feel like they’ve seen this all before.
They’re half-right. The big question is: What can Soderbergh bring to this genre that hasn’t already been tried? The hypothetical answer is: A realistic look at how government agencies and average citizens would cope with a new, fast-moving virus that’s transmitted through the most casual of contact. The reality, though, is far less sexy than that setup might imply. Indeed, Contagion, like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, is an art-house horror movie meant to entertain people who consider themselves too good to watch any of the films it so blatantly steals from. And, like Black Swan, this movie is incredibly dull.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen the whole film, minus the implied pulse. It opens pretty strong, with Gwyneth Paltrow playing a businesswoman returning to the States from Hong Kong. She’s saying good-bye to the guy she hooked up with during a layover in Chicago; this is the film’s only real moment of intrigue, because we know from the previews that she’s married to Matt Damon.
I take that back. The second surprise is that her character dies in the first five minutes of the movie. The montage of Paltrow in the previews is played out almost as quickly in the actual film, intercut with workers from the Centers for Disease Control and various other agencies getting wind of sudden deaths in Asia. Within fifteen minutes, Damon has lost his wife and their six-year-old son; doctors determine that he is immune to the disease, but he’s not willing to take any chances with his teenage daughter, who hadn’t been home since mom got back from her trip. He locks her away in their house, foraging for food and supplies when the world eventually goes to hell.
We meet other characters, like Laurence Fishburne as the head of the National Something-or-Other Agency. He sends Chief Specialist in Charge of Martyrdom Kate Winslet to Minnesota to investigate Paltrow’s death and to set up emergency quarantines at National Guard armories. Then there’s the lovely Marion Cotillard, who heads to Hong Kong to track down the origin of the disease, at the behest of the Culture-shock Committee. She is taken hostage by one of her co-workers and held ransom in his village until the U.S. government sends enough vaccines to save what’s left of his doomed people.
I haven’t mentioned any of the characters by name because, frankly, I don’t remember them. Chances are, neither will you as you walk through the lobby to your car. There are so many narratives introducing so many facts, points of view, and messages crammed into this hour-and-forty-five minutes that it’s impossible to hold onto anything. I guess Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are going for a real-time approach to capture the devastating speed at which disease, bad information, misinformation, and panic can spread. But the result is a movie that lacks cohesion as it jumps from location to location and event to event. In one instant, Fishburne is breaking protocol to tell his wife to get out of the city; in the next, there are riots at drug stores and food rationing. Contagion plays like an extended trailer for an excellent, star-studded HBO miniseries; it’s Traffic for germaphobes.
But it’s not a miniseries. So I have to contend with it as a singular piece of cinema. In this area, it fails to do anything but look pretty. Soderbergh knows how to frame a shot, I’ll give him that much. But the rest of the picture is pure gimmickry and plain bad taste. For one thing, it may be true that every actor in Hollywood wants to work with Steven Soderbergh, but that doesn’t mean he has to put them all in one film. I can count the number of unknowns in this movie on one hand; the star-power is distracting, especially since the filmmakers go so far out of their way to make these glamorous people so unglamorous that I started to ask myself if everyday people really look this shitty—regardless of whether or not they’re harboring a brain-eating spore.
They all do fine in their roles, but the second big problem is that they’re not playing actual characters. They’re delivery systems for “Hey, betcha never knew this” facts and social commentary. I mentioned Marion Cotillard earlier. She disappears from the film for so long that when she pops up later, I experienced a brief shock of recognition—it doesn’t help that, like all of the other characters with the exception of Damon and his daughter, we never find out what happens to her. I’m not saying that I need to know if she dies at age seventy or sixty-two, but it would be nice to know what the hell happens after she runs out of the airport, having learned some particularly nasty information.
The closest we get to a thesis or an arc is Jude Law, who plays the first blogger to discover the disease. He’s either a crazed conspiracy theorist or he’s right on the money, with his claims of the government and the pharmaceutical companies doing their best to profit from the disaster. We never find out because his storyline is derailed by a sub-plot involving his taking money from a hedge fund representative to either push or not push a vaccine that may or may not be an over-the-counter drug. I honestly forgot which is important to whom, and no one bothers to re-enforce or develop these threads. There’s just more piling on of crap, leading to a sting; but it’s okay, because twelve million of Law’s readers come up with his bail money and he’s let go. We last see him walking the streets, taking pictures of FEMA camps.
The central problem, I think, is that Soderbergh invests so much into being a “cool” director that he forgets how important warm and likable characters are (or at least ones that are interesting beyond their descriptions). People give him crap for making the fluffy and obnoxious Ocean’s movies, but in terms of characterization, I see little qualitative difference between his indie and studio pictures. He could take a page from David Fincher, who manages to create slick worlds inhabited by intelligent and memorable people, instead of unrelatable vessels who act as if they were born when “Action” was called (he came close with Bubble and The Informant!, but doesn’t appear to have learned anything in the ensuing years).
Contagion is a wholly unnecessary waste of money, both yours and Warner Brothers’. Had no stars signed on to play these roles, I could easily see this as a three-hour Discovery Channel special narrated by Bill Kurtis (complete with music that sounds like Cliff Martinez did a mash-up of 1980s movie-of-the-week orchestrations and Trent Reznor’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo score). Despite my negative comments, I don’t hate the film. I’m as ambivalent towards it as I am the last cold I had, which, despite not being a very pleasant experience, eventually left my head.
Note: I should mention that Contagion features one of the worst, most pandering endings I’ve ever seen. Soderbergh rips the art right out of his opening shot by spoon-feeding a wrap-around to the handful of mouth-breathers who may have thought his beginning with “Day 2” meant that their print was missing several frames.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 09/10/11.]