MOVIE REVIEW: Contagion
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon and Jude Law
Disease, information, and trauma spread seamlessly in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, evoking a very nightmarish Internet-age disaster scenario that purposefully withholds all sense of certainty and control. The film’s constrained compositions and gripping hand-held cinematography focus on what can’t be detected or understood, an approach diametrically opposed to Hollywood’s usual brand of easy access theatrics. There are no aerial widescreen shots of catastrophic events (earthquakes, tidal waves, asteroids) no single group of heroes miraculously surviving the carnage to ensure humanity’s survival. Instead, Contagion begins with a simple cough, a familiar transference of sudden energy and air as perfectly innocuous as it is devastating.
The hacking traveler is American businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), patient zero for the silent airborne killer later coined MEV-1.Like the virus itself, Contagion begins small and grows exponentially by the minute, searching for new environments and characters to infect. Soderbergh parallels the early international spread with gripping montages, globe hopping bursts of cinema effectively dispensing integral scientific context through movement and action. His camera style, so suave and dapper in the Ocean’s films, takes on an antiseptic, urgent, almost weaponized feel in Contagion. Hot and cold hues mesh, almost as if to contrast the feverish experience of the sick with the helpless isolation of those trying to care for them. Or perhaps Soderbergh’s competing colors refer to the transcendent nature of the disease itself, constructing killing fields underneath both the icy Minnesota sky and the sweaty Hong Kong cityscape.
Early on, Contagion avoids the certain moral and rational consequences of the pandemic in favor of wonderfully economic storytelling. A scene where two doctors open up a MEV-1 victim’s brain is horrifying for what it doesn’t show, a perfect example of Contagion’s obsession with personal and ethical deformation. Eventually the film settles down and pinpoints areas of human interest, experiences representing the angst, turmoil, and salvation going on around the world. Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) becomes the human centerpiece of a constantly shifting mosaic that includes a medical field officer (Kate Winslet), the head of the Center for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne), a World Health Organization scientist (Marion Cotillard), and an ambitious blogger (Jude Law). Some subplots work (Winselt’s conflicted heroism is the film’s finest characterization), and some fail miserably (Law’s seedy online opportunist is terribly one-note).
Soderbergh attempts to complicate the motivating factors of each character, sending Contagion into an obvious cinematic territory populated by deceptive politicians, ambitious profit mongers and sacrificial parents. Routine plot points run rampant: bureaucracy slows the world’s response time, while looting and tumult dramatically reference humanity’s worst impulses. Soderbergh’s problem is that for the most part he’s a great stylist but not a convincing sentimentalist (1992’s King of the Hill being a lone exception). Late stabs at human emotion fall flat, like Mitch’s uneasy relationship with his teenage daughter and an inane subplot between Cotillard’s WHO officer and a band of Chinese survivalists.
To make matters worse, Contagion dispels its lighting-quick pacing and becomes a bloated human-interest story about conventional responses to trauma; the evil men (and women) do to survive a panicked landscape. One final ironic twist regarding the origin of MEV-1 ends the film on an especially reductive note, leaving Soderbergh’s cinematic intentions somewhat askew. Is Contagion a valid wake-up call to a realistic disaster or a simplistic sermon against man’s self-destructive nature? Considering the heavy-handed nature of Contagion’s overlapping worldview, I would argue the latter.