Saturday, September 17, 2011

Contagion Movie Review: Sanitize Your Hands, Cover Your Mouth

How disease can spread without your knowing it.
Leave it to director Steven Soderbergh to take a worn out movie premise and zap us with a unique take. How many iterations of the global pandemic film can we take? That’s what I thought when I saw the ads for Contagion, which rather unfortunately make the film look much more like an action thriller than it really is. Soderbergh, working from an original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, guts the genre of just about everything we expect. There are no chases. There’s no government cover up, though one particularly repugnant character hints at one. There’s no thumping and pounding musical score. There’s no child in danger (actually, a young child is dispatched early on with very little fanfare and no time for reflection) and no last minute rescue or rush to manufacture a vaccine to save the world.

So what’s left, you might ask? What remains is a generally smart screenplay that takes the beginning premise of a deadly virus and explores how such a pandemic would be dealt with at various levels of both government and health departments. It’s an entirely unsensationalized treatment of the subject. It’s a slow burn in which many people get sick and many of those people die, where officials are mostly trying to do what they can to stop the spread of disease, although they also recognize the importance (a recognition that much of the public might not attain) of limiting information to prevent mass hysteria.

Without drawing attention to itself as a technique, Soderbergh, who also operates his own cameras under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, forces us to notice, even before we’re acutely aware of any disease, the ways in which bacteria and virus can spread. As a man gets on a bus, the camera just catches his hand holding a pole. Some shots draw our attention to the way someone touches his nose and then touches a public object or hands something to another person. All this information is conveyed in the first moments of the film and because we know what the film is about, we know what Soderbergh is up to. When Gwyneth Paltrow lets out a little cough, we know she’s doomed.

Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, who brings the virus with her from Hong Kong on her return trip through Chicago (to meet her lover) on the way to Minneapolis. She dies shortly after returning and her young son takes ill shortly after that. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), however, never shows any symptoms. Will he be the key to the cure? This isn’t Outbreak where the big secret was finding the original host monkey to magically create a vaccine in twelve hours. Mitch asks why they can’t just take his blood and make a vaccine. It’s more complicated than that, he’s told. Right there is the key to this movie. Everything depicted in Contagion points to the fact that epidemic disease is unbelievably complex and virtually impossible to control. Only science, the slow and methodical process of hypothesis, testing, and discovery can find a solution.

Contagion does for the epidemic disease thriller what Soderbergh’s fantastic Traffic did for cops and robbers movies. He takes all the romance out of it and presents it for what it is. Like Traffic, Contagion also uses a laundry list of characters and recognizable actors spread out over distant locations. Laurence Fishburne is Dr. Cheever, an official at CDC in Atlanta. Kate Winslet is Dr. Mears, whom he sends to investigate in Minnesota. Marion Cotillard is Dr. Orantes with the WHO, sent to Hong Kong. Other smaller roles are filled by the likes of Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, and Jude Law as pot-stirring blogger Alan Krumwiede, who tries to convince his 12 million unique visitors that a particular herbal medicine can cure the disease, but the government won’t tell you that because they’re in bed with the pharmaceutical companies. This is the kind of drivel we hear from a very vocal minority of people in real life and it was utterly satisfying to see his character receive his just deserts in the end.

The thing that really sets this film apart from others that fall within its subgenre is its treatment of the material as cinema verite. This feels like something that could happen. In fact, Burns’ screenplay makes it a point to observe recent epidemic scares such as bird flu and swine flu. Officials in the film also point out, when trying to calculate the potential impact of the fictional movie virus, that the Spanish flu of 1918 killed about 3 percent of the world’s population. This frightening fact gives them and us a moment of pause as we consider that the Spanish flu, like the movie virus, was a never-before-seen strain of influenza that stumped epidemiologists worldwide. I have a feeling that if a large scale deadly epidemic were to break out, it would happen something akin to the scope presented in Contagion. The kind of deadly virus that kills every single human being in its path, like that in Outbreak, is cinematically dramatic with the bleeding orifices and liquefied organs, but it doesn’t frighten me on a visceral level.

Contagion made me fearful of something dreadful around the corner. It’s the only movie I can think of that has no monster, no villain, and no killer (in human or animal form, that is), but managed to have me nervous and looking over my shoulder. This is because Soderbergh and his editor Stephen Mirrione (who also wove coherence out of Traffic and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel and 21 Grams) keep it moving almost like a clinical study. The dialogue is notable not for its big pronouncements and shocking developments, but for its steady and measured calculus and for the actors’ calm and professional delivery. Drs. Mears and Orantes don’t have moments of desperation where they have to get some obtuse government official to do what they say lest half the world die. They simply stick to the facts and try to make decisions on the ground that are likely to help as many people as possible and stop the spread of disease. The film exhibits patience, you could say.

I did feel that it takes a few too many shortcuts, particularly in having the country devolve into complete anarchic chaos rather quickly. How long would it take for people to revert to animalistic behavior, fending for themselves in a Darwinian struggle to reap maximum rewards for minimum risk? I would venture to say longer than Contagion suggests, but maybe that’s just me. Although I did like the parallel drawn between the spread of viral disease and the dissemination of a meme after Cheever provides a warning to a loved one to evacuate the city.

As technically proficient as Soderbergh is and as well as he handles complex material with an even hand, the biggest fault I find with much of his work is the apparent lack of empathy he has. His films, with a few notable exceptions, are often devoid of emotional investment. Contagion falls into the latter category. Where I should have been deeply concerned for Damon’s character and his teenage daughter whom he protects by sealing her off from the world for many months, I felt only cold calculation. The over-packed screenplay has too little time for him to grieve over the deaths of his wife and stepson. That said, there are some lovely and touching moments at the close that almost make up for the rest.

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