Film review by: Witney Seibold
Steven Soderbergh‘s “Contagion” is an unsentimental, unsensational, unstylized look at how a global epidemic could potentially effect human society. Soderbergh keeps our mind on the potential ease of transmission, starting with one person, and eventually killing off a measurable percentage of the human population. He lovingly keeps his camera close to the surfaces that we touch, the way we touch our faces, and how we can so very easily cough in public ad accidentally infect five or six people around us. Anyone with even the slightest germ phobia will be right on this film’s wavelength – not to mention completely freaked out. The screenplay, by Scott Z. Burns, reminds us time and again the exact populations of the cities being progressively infected, and just how viruses work, and how difficult it can be to make a vaccine.
This is told as a realist ensemble drama, so we’re given bits of stories along all strata. This approach is a relief, as it doesn’t allow the film to become the dull panic drama of people trying desperately to flee their old location, only to encounter a quarantine blockade on the way to the new one. We do have that story from Mitch (Matt Damon), who seems to be immune to the virus, but his story is only one of many. There’s the story of his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) who appears to be patient zero, as she may have contracted this new bug while traveling in Hong Kong. There’s a rather horrific scene where we get to see doctors rooting around in her brain during her autopsy. Their reaction is one of panic. There’s the story of the hardworking CDC bigwig (a realistically dorky Laurence Fishburne), who is trying to deal with the spreading crisis with as much tact as possible, but who is still going to be pegged as a scapegoat. There is the virologist (Jennifer Ehle) who is looking for a serum. There is the hotshot reporter/’blogger (Jude Law wearing a snaggletooth), who is using the epidemic to further his career, and who earnestly feels that the government is lying to the people. There is the CDC field officer (Kate Winslet) who is trying to work out the logistics of quarantining hundreds of people There is the Swiss WHO worker (Marion Cotillard) who is, curiously, kidnapped by Chinese extremists. It was only this last storyline that seemed extraneous.
Soderbergh proved, with “Traffic” and his “Ocean’s” movies, that he can do ensemble pieces well, and “Contagion” is probably his best use of the ensemble, and his most skilful direction of it. The stories all seem relevant, balanced, and offer a vital viewpoint to the global horror. His quiet, measured direction makes the audience panic more than any oversaturated panic actually would. If the world were hit by a killer virus tomorrow, it would probably look a lot like the events in “Contagion.”
Sometimes, however, the film is so measured and calm, that we begin to lose focus on the emotional core of the world. We see what people in offices are doing, but we don’t get to see the worldwide reaction to such a cloud of death. How are people feeling about this. It’s only the Damon character who really gives us any of this facet; he can’t bury his wife in the family plot because her body is quarantined. The global social implication don’t seem to extend too far past mere riots and desperation. A touch of philosophy would have been nice. And I’m not talking about the film’s final scenes.
But if the film lacks any thoughtfulness (which it may not; I could be nitpicking), it more than makes up for it in its uncanny ability to stir panic in even the most jaded of immune systems. After the film, you will not want to shake anyone’s hand ever again. It’s rare that a film can reach that level of real-life fear.