Review: Contagion, 2011, dir. Steven Soderbergh

I’ve said before that Steven Soderbergh is a genre chameleon; if this year’s Haywire doesn’t unequivocally prove that, then last year’s Contagion should, and soundly at that. Contagion may not be a straight genre film in the way that the multi-faceted filmmaker’s bone-snapping arthouse action film is, but it nonetheless exists as a synthesis of numerous filmmaking categories– essentially, it’s the result of combining strands of DNA from movies like Traffic with something very specific, namely Outbreak, an analogy that’s been oft-touted by other critics as well. If I sound like a parrot it’s only because the comparison is so perfectly on-the-nose, but there’s something else to Contagion that many seem to have missed: horror. Fear. Rampant paranoia. Contagion should, and likely will, scare anyone who sees it. If you’re not a germophobe before you see it, you may well be one after you have.

Contagion‘s title doesn’t leave very much to the imagination; it’s not a metaphor, it’s not a clever ruse. It’s honest advertising. Soderbergh’s film details explicitly the rapid spread of an especially virulent and nasty strain of virus heretofore unknown to the CDC and the WHO, and the efforts its members exert to halt its advance and, ultimately, develop a cure. No smoke and mirrors here, unless you count the ending reveal of the disease’s origins; just science and emotion. Like Traffic, the narrative is fractious; Soderbergh follows more than half a dozen characters across the span of roughly a year as each of them reacts to the spread of the pandemic in their own ways. Some of them (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Gould) try in earnest to get a handle on the virus; some of them (Matt Damon) just try to survive it; some of them (Jude Law) entertain conspiracies over the events unfolding in its wake.

And while we never linger on the devastating reach of the disease, we do see just how harsh its touch can be. There’s a sense of scope and scale and impact that pervades the fabric of the movie even though Soderbergh, more often than not, homes in on the micro over the macro; occasional shots of a mass grave or a stranger dying in a bus or a hotel room give us all the necessary overview to understand the lethal nature of the epidemic. Meanwhile, Soderbergh rather cleverly keeps us up to date on the global death toll through spurts of dialogue between completely separated characters, sneaking exposition and info dumps into scenes where neither feels forced or out of place. More than anything, he’s focused on the directions people will bend in a disaster situation of this persuasion. In other words, Contagion isn’t a film about graphically capturing the impact of the eponymous plague but documenting how its characters respond to it.

For the most part, Contagion follows attempts to study the virus, vaccinate the population worldwide, and recover from the outbreak; our most persistent anchors are CDC scientists and epidemiologists, who spend the bulk of their screen time in government facilities or on the ground directly battling the illness. These scenes may be what distinguishes Contagion from other movies of its sort. Soderbergh, not one to eschew detail and fabricate reality, digs into heavy science while favoring accuracy over heightened drama– but not at the expense of genuine tension. If much of what these characters discuss with one another sounds foreign to our ears, we at least only need to understand the basic meaning of their words, and besides, that aforementioned slyly deployed exposition translates the most important pieces for us.  You may not know about r noughts going into the film, but you’ll get it once you come out the other side.

But Contagion isn’t just about science-speak; more centrally it’s about human elements, to which most of us can much more easily relate. Damon, playing a Minnesotan father and husband, represents our clearest audience identification character; his arc deals with the impact of the outbreak in a much more personal, emotional way than anyone else’s, and may be the most affecting of the bunch. Partly, that’s on Damon. In role after role, he continues to prove himself as one of the best male leads working today, and his turn here is no exception. Beset by sickness and death all around him, Damon watches the world around him crumble from ground zero as the people of his town loot, riot, and even rob and kill each other to stay alive; seeing the tragedies unfold around him, along with suffering his own losses, just motivates him to maintain his morality and humanity (which makes him something of a foil to Law’s unscrupulous, ignorant, self-interested alarmist). Damon brings both of those ideals to the surface, along with his character’s vulnerability and ratcheting stress. It’s a powerful, engaging performance from an actor who never stops improving.

Which isn’t to say that Damon’s moments mark the only ones that are so clearly driven by emotion. Soderbergh never lets us forget that even our CDC and WHO agents are, beneath everything else, just people trying to do the best that they can to save lives and find a solution. They have loved ones they care for, too. They have as much on the line as anyone else– they just enjoy a perception of increased protection and access to care and supplies the rest of the world does not. And some of the most heartbreaking moments occur not within Damon’s celluloid bailiwick, but in the hospitals and labs where these characters do their work. Ultimately, that may actually be Contagion‘s one big illusion. For a film about a viral catastrophe, it’s completely centralized on developing its characters and gradually revealing them as rounded, vital people– and among the big questions Soderbergh poses about social order and the communication age, “what would you do?” ends up being the most prominent query of them all.

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10 thoughts on “Review: Contagion, 2011, dir. Steven Soderbergh

  1. Pretty decent movie but as you point out, the focus on accuracy (or pretense to do so) hurts the movie from a dramatic point of view and overall, this is just a somewhat emotionally distant movie. In these kind of catastrophe movie, your first instinct is to think “what would I do in the same situation but the movie’s focus doesn’t reinforce that so it left me kind of unsatisfied.

    • But I think that accuracy is the drama. There’s no phony baloney pseudo-science here; you could swap out the real science on display for movie science and nothing would change except that the movie would feel really disingenuous. And for me, the movie’s bigger focus is absolutely on getting us to be introspective and ask ourselves what we would do in such circumstances; that’s, I think, what Damon’s segments are all about, but then there’s also Fishburne’s advanced warning to his fiancee to leave town and Ehle’s little visit to her father in the hospital.

      At times Contagion is distant, but it all comes back to those emotional beats, for me at least.

  2. GREAT flick, I really really liked it. And Soderbergh is awesome here. The style he injects into this flick carries it to a much higher level than it would have reached with a lesser director.

    The characters were really well done, by some great actors, and credit to Soderbergh for making them as rich as he did while juggling such a huge ensemble. There are times when you can connect emotionally with them, which is impressive for a film that has so many players.

    But the big selling point is the frightening realism, which you also mention.

    I had the heebie jeebies reaching out to push open the theatre door when I left. Now THATS a sign of a movie that GOT to you. LOL

    • I consciously sat on my hands after learning how many times a day we touch our faces. This is a movie that’s almost 100% designed to freak you out with real data about real happenings, but it always comes back to people, which is what I really liked about it.

  3. Andrew, I’m with you mate. Every time I’ve touched my face since I saw this film, I’m thinking, ‘Is it 2 or 3,000 times a day I do this?’!

    • Every day after I finished the film, I told myself I’d endeavor to go through a whole 24 hour period counting every single time I touched my face. After maybe 20 times I get freaked out and stop counting.

  4. Pingback: Contagion | The Movie Report

  5. Nice review, man. I really enjoyed this and thought the performances and the tone were spot on. I especially loved the use of the (I think I am right) Simple Minds track towards the end.

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