Is Steven Soderbergh’s movie a rare catch, or clichéd mess?
You know the drill. A man stumbles across a foreign insect, starts acting strangely and attacks his friends. A doctor discovers the cure for cancer, only to have it kill 90% of the world’s population, with the rest turning into mindless zombies. An asteroid crashing into the Earth’s surface releases deadly airborne toxins which kill millions within minutes.
But this is not Doomsday, I Am Legend, nor is it the The Planet of the Apes. This is Contagion, and it portrays a scenario that is startlingly real.
Contagion is told from a variety of perspectives. Matt Damon plays a man named Mitch Emhoff whom is found immune to a virus that consumed his wife and son. Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is sent by her boss Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) to investigate the source of the virus in America. At the same time, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) struggles to find a vaccine for a virus, meticulously examining all the data while on a race against time. Halfway across the world, Marion Cotillard plays Dr. Leonora Orantes who travels to Hong Kong, ground zero of the virus. All of these narratives form an underlying image of a world struggling to maintain order in light of a grave danger.
What surprised me about this film is how fast the movie progresses; not in terms of actual running time, rather its pacing gives the impression of speed and urgency. Within minutes, three people are killed. Within a month, millions are killed. The film is relentless and indiscriminate, killing whoever happens to touch the wrong thing at the wrong time. The sense of urgency is amplified through the actions of the characters themselves, trying to find the quickest means necessary to fulfill their primary objectives. The film constantly switches back and forth between the perspectives, demonstrating the massive scale and intensity of this threat.
Rather than focusing on dramatic spectacles which seem all-to-common in today’s disaster movies, Contagion focuses on a small and invisible threat: one who cannot be seen, felt, or heard. Steven Soderbergh’s carefully plotted camera angles and chilling soundtrack makes every contact a potential risk in Contagion.
The last disaster movie I watched was 2012. It showed a lone family defying the odds and surviving a cataclysm of epic proportion. In short, it sacrificed realism for a climactic storyline and overblown special effects. Contagion was unique in that the only thing it uses to attract the viewer is its authenticity. This is what impressed me most about the film. From the realistic interpretations of a government responding to crisis, to the explanation of scientific concepts like the basic reproduction number and fomites, the film makes no compromises in ensuring that each detail of a worldwide epidemic was not missed.
Even the depiction of a decaying society is portrayed accurately. Jude Law plays a social blogger who protests against the secrecy of the federal government, while trying to progress his own agenda. Without spoiling too much of the plot, his actions display the influence social media has on our lives. In times of desperation, people are willing to listen to anyone who offers a quick and efficient solution. The film shows how fast a society can falter with these circumstances. An orderly line at a ration station turns into a full-blown riot after an announcement of food shortages. The juxtaposed behaviour of the crowd mentality prevalent in Contagion unearths an underlying fact about human psychology: that we deny all social conventions and moral standards if we cannot satisfy our animalistic desires.
Unfortunately, in the race for authenticity, Soderbergh forgot an important element consistent of excellent films: emotion. Watching the film and its conclusion makes the audience care not for the characters in the film but of themselves. Jumping from perspective to perspective prevents the audience from relating to any of the characters. Despite Matt Damon’s role as the “relatable character” in the movie, his story failed to grip on me. In fact, the closest thing to concern I felt during the movie was the portrayal of innocent and vulnerable children living in the impoverished nations around the world. Yet, Soderbergh fails to capitalize on these elements of his story, reducing many of these into subplots. Ultimately, this was disappointing.
The ending was commendable, but predictable. I’m not going to spoil the plot, but if you watched the movie closely, you will find that the conclusion didn’t awe or surprise you. However, it did tie the story together, and there was a hidden reference which makes the threat slightly interesting. To be honest, I didn’t catch this reference in my first go and I had to watch the movie again to confirm my conclusions.
Despite its faults, Contagion is a fantastic movie and is a must-see for anyone vaguely interested in medical science and fast-paced thrillers. The movie is a tense affair, and the real impact of the movie is not its story per-se, but its message about the vulnerability of the human race and how easily it can fall into chaos. The feasibility of the plot so profoundly influenced me that it changed my outlook on the physical world around me.
So watch the film, ponder, and have fun. But make sure you bring a hand sanitizer – you may want to use it.