Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Review: Contagion

Contagion (2011, trailer) is about the spread of and fight against a deadly pandemic. It spreads through interpersonal contact, proximity and fomites (objects), which prompts many ominous shots of people touching cutlery, glasses, and each other.

Dear God.

Steven Soderbergh tells this story through the style of ‘hyperlink’ - i.e. many interconnecting characters and plotlines - and an ensemble cast:

Laurence Fishburne is a Center for Disease Control (CDC) doctor who suspects that the virus might be a biological weapon.

Gwyneth Paltrow is Patient Zero, who contracts the virus on a business trip to Hong Kong. She also cheats on her husband, which always means a death sentence in Movieworld.

Matt Damon is Paltrow’s husband. He finds out he is immune to the pathogen, and strives to keep his tween-aged daughter from infection.

Jude Law is a scare-mongering blogger and conspiracy theorist.

Kate Winslet is an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer who sets up quarantines and care facilities for the infirmed.

Marion Cotillard is an epidemiologist who goes to Hong Kong to find the source.

Also, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould and Meryl Streep-lookalike Jennifer Ehle are more CDC doctors, John Hawkes is a CDC janitor, and Bryan Cranston is some other health official.

My Take

I was intrigued by the premise of Contagion. The subject is so topical that it wouldn’t take much effort to thrill and frighten an audience - the world is so densely populated and air travel is so widely available nowadays that the idea of a new Spanish Flu-type outbreak is entirely, and terrifyingly, possible.

In fact, it's already happened in small scale. Remember swine flu, bird flu before that, mad cow disease before that, foot-and-mouth disease before that, and SARS before that?

In terms of personnel, Contagion seemed to have a strong cast of character-actors, and I knew that Soderbergh’s a dab hand with ensemble casts.

I felt that the film started very well, with the dread ratcheted right up immediately: After the opening credits dissolve into black, we hear Beth (Paltrow) cough before her face fades in.

We see the chain of people she has come into contact with: she hands a waitress some money, the waitress jabs at a touch-screen. A Chinese man – presumably a waiter working at the same place - looks run-down and disoriented on a bus. A subtitle tells us: ‘KOWLOON, HONG KONG, population 2.1 million.’

A girl hands Beth her phone at a Chicago airport bar. The girl walks into an art studio, wiping fever-sweat off her face. ‘LONDON, ENGLAND, population 8.6 million.’ It’s almost got me!

The Chinese guy has touched the handlebars on the bus, the girl an art portfolio. More subtitles read: Day 2. Day 3. The disease marches on.

The picture is tinged with a sickly green, as if someone has smeared Vaseline onto the camera's lens.

Day 4: Beth has developed a nasty purple mottling on her skin. She collapses on her kitchen floor, foams at the mouth, convulses, and dies.

Good move, I thought. Taking a leaf out of Psycho’s book, the filmmakers kill the biggest star of the film within the first ten minutes. Anyone could be next; the contagion doesn't discriminate.

Unfortunately, I felt that after these first ten minutes, Contagion went downhill.

To me, the strength of the beginning lay in its immediacy. These feel like real people walking around, spreading this virus just through their daily motions. The sequencing tells us the direct relation each person has to the next, and therefore the chain of infection. As a viewer, I am at ground-level with them, and they occupy all of my attention.

Now, enter the ensemble. There’s a lot of names, a lot of storylines, and a lot of pieces that my attention is now divided into. Suddenly I’m not at ground-level any more; instead, my perspective 'clicks' to each of these many people, as if I’m watching several channels on an omniscient TV.

Because we click around so much, the characters don’t have time to develop to the point that I actually care about whether or not they die. Marion Cotillard in particular gets a true Malick-style short shrift.

The emphasis isn't on the everyday people in danger. Instead, it is on the bureaucracy, testing and research behind containing the virus and finding a vaccination.

In Matt Damon's storyline we do see classic panic: chairs through windows, fires and looting. However, we only see it in snatches. None of it actually touches Damon; he's so safe that he can afford to spend the majority of his screen time inside his house, trying to keep his daughter's potentially-infected crush out. How mundane.

Not only are there many plotlines, but they take place in many wide-ranging places - a fact which kept me even farther from the immediacy and danger. Never mind the disease’s spread in SAN FRANCISCO, we’re off to MINNESOTA. Or ATLANTA. Or GENEVA. Click, click, click. You’d see fewer locations in a Bond movie. Some of them even have the word ‘safety’ in the name.

 Ah, that’s better.

I’d have liked this movie to have had an atmosphere more akin to 28 Days Later or Children of Men. In both of those, our perspective is through the eyes of everyday people to whom the big threat is very real. We retain their viewpoints throughout, see their struggle to survive, learn who they are, and care about their survival.

Contagion, on the other hand, is about the much less interesting bureaucrats and medical higher-ups. We don't learn who they are, and they are often completely safe from the threat.

In one development, Krumwiede (Jude Law’s character) insists that The Government secretly knows that there is a cure, in the form of forsythia extract. If this happened in 28 Days Later, we’d see the main characters desperately seek it out: even if it is dodgy homeopathy, keeping hope for salvation alive is paramount. They'd have no choice but to trust it.

In Contagion, there isn’t much tension in this development. Since we’re privy to the newest developments of the health authority, we’ll be the first to know whether or not the forsythia is a real cure, straight from the horse’s mouth. Sit tight, they’ll figure it out.

Contagion was written by Scott Z. Burns, who teamed up with Soderbergh again in 2013 for Side Effects. Both films I felt were lacking in humanity and heavy in didacticism; Burns seems to like using his characters as soap boxes to discuss societal issues. Some interested me, like when a health pundit derides Krumwiede on a televised interview:

‘What we do know is in order to become sick you have to first come in contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is come in contact with a rumor or the television or the Internet. I think that what Mr. Krumwiede is spreading is more dangerous than disease.’

Others did not interest me and struck me as preachy, like when Mears (Winslet) is asked what information should be released to the public:

‘Is this something we want to release to the press? ‘Respiratory and fomites’? How’s the public gonna react?’
‘Hard to say. A plastic shark in a movie will keep people from getting in the ocean, but a warning on the side of a pack of cigarettes…’

Whatever, Kate. Stick to the point.

Burns tries to facilitate the constant changes in plotlines and locations with scene-ending zingers. Some of these prove to be ridiculous - for example, two surgeons perform an autopsy on Beth and one of them pauses, dumbfounded.

‘You want me to take a sample?’ the other one asks.
‘I want you to look away from the table.’
‘Should I call someone?’
‘Call everyone.’

How vague and unhelpful.

Later, Cheever (Fishburne) and Haggerty (Cranston) discuss their plan to roadblock Chicago, and the possible reaction to this:

‘People will panic, the virus will be the least of our worries. It will tip over now.’
‘We just need to make sure that nobody knows…until everybody knows.’


I thought the most fully-realized character was Krumwiede – who, perhaps ironically, is a huge asshole. He is the quintessential sensationalist, forever spewing panic-inducing information: ‘On day one there were two people with it, and then there were four, and then it was sixteen, and you think you’ve got it in front of you. But next it’s 256, and then it’s 65,000, and it’s behind you and above you and all around you! In thirty steps it’s a billion sick.’

He comes out with many soundbites like this and forever interrupts people, like in his debate on the news:

‘The studies show that there is no proof that forsythia-'
‘Who conducted the studies? What defines ‘works’? Against what strain of the virus?!

I applaud Soderbergh – and Sam Mendes on Road to Perdition - for casting Jude Law in such unsympathetic roles, because I believe they suit him much more than in his ‘hero’ roles (eXistenZ, Sherlock HolmesA.I.) I feel that there is something cold and reptilian about him that lends well to malice.

 Or maybe I just don’t like his ‘real-life Tintin’ coiffure.

To me, Contagion felt less like a survival thriller than an ‘everyone’s okay now’ retrospective documentary. Its moderate rating (6.7) on IMDb suggests that some people are interested in its political content, but I'd rather stay at ground-level.

Screengrabs: Contagion was produced by Warner Bros., Double Feature Films and Regency Enterprises, in association with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ. The UK DVD was distributed by Warner Home Video.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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