Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 9 Sep 2011 (General release); 2011)
Contagion offers up an immediate, intriguing idea. It’s a wonderful ‘what if’ spread out over days, countries, and concerns. It has an excellent cast, a sharp man behind the lens (Steven Soderbergh) and enough hot button headline making maneuvers to get our current head in the sand society awake and thinking… and scared. Unlike other ‘disaster’ style films, this is a thinking man’s maelstrom, a tempest in a test tube where every second counts and every bureaucrat gets to bellyache. There’s even a conspiracy theory angle tied to the War on Terror, corporate America, Homeland Security, and that bane of all normative news reporting, the blogsphere.
So why then is this formidable fall release so sterile? Why does it come across as distant and disinterested when it should dictate some prescient panic in the year 2011? The answer may derive from all that’s come before. From ‘50s Bs to Irwin Allen’s artifice, the end of the world genre has been savaged by an unending need to make spectacle, not serious debate, the main source of acceptance. We don’t want to see how animalistic the human race becomes, or how partisan our politicians can be. We want tsunamis swallowing Manhattan, earthquakes destroying Los Angeles, and asteroids leveling Paris. Here, all we get are the sketchbook highlights for a far more in-depth look at destruction.
After returning home from a trip to Hong Kong, businesswoman and wife Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with a mysterious flu like disease. She eventually dies, almost destroying her family and husband Thomas in the process (Matt Damon). Turns out, Ms. Emhoff is just one of several individuals worldwide who have recently passed away from this unknown illness. Within days, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta sets its director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), its top field investigator Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and its most skilled scientists, Hextall and Tatanga (Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin) on the case. Likewise, the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to China to try and decipher a cause.
Back home, a popular internet blogger named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is stirring up controversy, arguing that the rapidly spreading plague is actually a way for the government to influence the economy and profit the pharmaceutical companies. At first, he is ignored. But as the death toll rises, his word becomes a rebuff of all the procedure and protocol propaganda. In the meantime, Dr. Orantes is kidnapped and held for a vaccine ransom, Thomas is discovered to be immune, and Cheever runs into political red tape at every turn…and with a cure still several months away, the population at large is dying off rapidly - and those left alive are panicking.
Like a compacted American TV mini-series being shoveled into international theatrical release for a few extras dollars, Contagion feels incomplete. It’s as if a much larger, more epic movie was planned, and then Soderbergh and the studios got into a pissing match over the costs and run time and a good hour of necessary scripted exposition was shuttled aside. Now at a lean, mean, and sometimes jarring 105 minutes, the movie skirts along like a Discovery Channel primer, packed with information but little emotional involvement. We never really care about the outbreak here, can’t sympathize with Damon when he learns how is wife almost wiped out Chicago. The teen angst subplot is a tad overwrought and the whole terrorism theme seems tacky. Indeed, had the movie just been about one family trying to cope with a pandemic, we’d have something more substantial - The Road without the hopelessness. Here, every time sentiment is set-up, the movie fails to make us feel.
Perhaps it’s because Contagion contains more leftover loose threads than a Wal-Mart garment. For every element it gets 100% right there’s a lingering question that remains unanswered. What is Marion Cotillard doing as she runs back through the airport? Who attacked Laurence Fishburne’s home - and how did they know him? Better yet, who is the young woman/wife who causes friction between her man and his bumbling bosses? Branch out a bit more and they still keep on coming. Was Jude Law’s weblog prophet a fake? Was he only in it for the cash? What exactly happened when people relied on his miracle herbal remedy to cure them? These are all legitimate qualms that keep the narrative from truly resonating as anything other than a genre type.
True, Soderbergh’s skill set keeps us from completely losing our grip, and he does make this often talky exercise compelling. Even better, he brings out an A-list cast that does everything it can with the often truncated roles they are given. Winslet is wonderful as the worried field agent who just doesn’t have the energy to battle the state level stooges she must put up with. Her arc is interesting indeed. Equally charming is Ehle’s Hextall. While a bit too self-righteous in the reading, her sense of duty and sacrifice are empowering. On the other end, Law looks goofy with a skewed tooth, and sounds even odder channeling what sounds like an Australian accent. Still, his purpose (sans a sensible conclusion) actually pays off. To a lesser extent, the rest of the actors are fine, if forced to deal with the choppy delivery of their often passive performances.
In the end, Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. While no one expected Soderbergh to suddenly turn into Roland Emmerich, did he really have to skimp on the scope? Yes, the film trots around the globe given us every angle on the sickness. But a travelogue does something similar, and doesn’t require a working knowledge of biology or diplomacy. When you consider the simplicity of the final explanation, when you watch as Paltrow’s Beth becomes Patient Zero in a worldwide catastrophe, Contagion kind of cops out. Before then, though, it’s a well written summary of what can happen in our modern, muddled world.