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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Movie Review: Contagion

I've been looking forward to Contagion ever since I saw the preview with Matt Damon.  My friends know I have a soft spot for Damon; I honestly don't know what it is about him.  He's a good actor, sure, but there are plenty of good actors I don't get excited about when I see they are in a new movie.  Damon, however...let's just say I do a little dance when I see he has a new movie for me to watch.  Maybe it's because of the Bourne films...

Moving on.

Contagion is an interesting take on a cliche theme:  that of the super infection which wreaks havoc on humanity while the government and society tries desperately to keep it under control.  Rather than focusing on the post-infection world, such as in Carriers, or a single family trying to survive the early hours of the infection (Right at Your Door), Contagion tries to show the bigger picture:  the family left behind by patient zero; the CDC director, field officers, and scientists trying to
contain the infection, stifle panic, and find out where the infection came from and how it can be stopped; the government agents trying to paint the "right" picture; and the conspiracy theorist trying to uncover the truth.  
In many respects, Soderbergh's germaphobic thriller resembles films like Love, Actually in its multiple characters and storylines.  But while I loved Love, Actually, I think Contagion leaves a lot to be desired.  The film follows the characters in chronological order, displaying the days since the first infection on the screen every time there is a shift.  Of course, doing so presents problems, since the first focus character is also dead within five minutes (Gwyneth Paltrow); we never get to know who she is as a person, except through the activities of other characters, most of which result in destroying our sympathy for her (she turns out to have been cheating on her husband).

And this is the primary problem with Contagion:  not enough time is spent with any of the characters to give us a good sense of who they are.  Their motivations are often strictly logical.  The father (Mitch, played by Matt Damon) becomes survival guru in order to save his biological daughter, who may or may not be immune to the virus; the budding scientist, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), takes a shot in the dark because, as we're told, getting the vaccine through human trials will take months (hooray for the bureaucratic process); and so on and so forth.  There are too few surprises -- except, perhaps, in the case of Alan Krunwiede (Jude Law), who starts as a conspiracy theorist with an anti-establishment bent, but then seems to become just as corrupt as the people he tries to depose.  The only character who seemed to grow by the end of the movie was Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), who begins as a somewhat warm-hearted figure, but concludes as a man who doesn't care that doing what is right might also mean breaking the law.  But the other characters?  They're empty.  Some are almost like cardboard cutouts of people we've seen in other disaster movies.  Too few characters show any development.  The focus is not on them (on their motivations, lives, feelings, etc.).

Rather, Contagion seems more focused on structural storytelling.  On the one hand, I think this is clever, since the narrative jumps back and forth to show what an infection looks like from all angles (within a certain view, of course).  Most films which deal with contagion do so by showing a small piece of a larger picture.  Such narratives focus on small groups of characters, surviving together, rather than separately.  But Contagion shows everyone, from the family man, to the lowly scientist, to the journalists and field scientists and government officials and so on and so forth.  Doing so, however, means the film can't focus.  It constantly shifts perspective to present new information (most of which we need, but a good deal of which is presented to the audience as medical jargon).

I guess what I'm getting at is that Contagion feels uneven.  It spends so much time trying to get us invested in some of the characters and their struggles, but because the structure is focused on the processes of contagion and containment, the characters and emotional impact get lost.  While I appreciated the style of Contagion, which sometimes takes the form of documentary and other times as a thriller, I couldn't help feeling detached from what was going on.  Hearing about all of the deaths isn't the same as seeing them happen or feeling their impact on the screen.  Numerous characters hear about the millions dying from the infection, but so few seem to have any connection to it or show distress.  And without that connection, the narrative falls flat.  If this is a serious infection, why can't we see what it looks like?  Yes, there are scenes which show us bodies being put in trenches, but these are few and far between.  Once the ball gets rolling, the infection is relayed to us in dialogue:  "it's killed X."

The movie had a lot of potential, and many of the name actors do their best with what little is given to them.  But my overall feeling is that of disappointment.  This was not the thriller I was expecting.  I want more than style in my movies.  I want to feel something -- to care about characters.  Contagion just doesn't do that for me, which is a shame when you consider what the film is about:  people dying from an infection.

Directing: 2/5
Cast: 3/5 (the cast is good, but they do so little on the screen it's hard to give them more than 3 out of 5)
Writing: 2/5
Visuals: 3/5
Adaptation: N/A
Overall: 2.5/5

P.S.:  I also think the film is ideologically confused.  If you see it, pay attention to how women, pharmaceutical companies, and those who poke back at the government are portrayed.  It's very weird...If anyone is interested in these things, I'd be happy to post an addendum.

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  1. I just saw Contagion last night and thought it was pretty good. I actually liked the structural storytelling... I actually think it's a nice break from the typical primary character-focused film, and I think this was the kind of movie that really allowed it to work. Matt Damon was totally not sad enough when his wife and stepson died, but other than that, I felt like all the characters were well-portrayed.

    It's also an example of what I actually consider "science" or "speculative" fiction as opposed to (science) fantasy. That was some serious science, unlike most SF.

    My main beef, though? It suffered from AVATAR syndrome:

  2. Oddly enough, all those AVATAR incidences were ordered by a black man. Just saying...