Thursday, 27 October 2011


2011. Dir: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law. ●●●○○

Contagion does a great job of changing the way you think. For a few hours after leaving the cinema I was afraid to touch door handles, hand driers, bar snacks, nervous of using public transport and definitely avoiding coughing in peoples faces. All of these apparently harmless activities now seem to invite painful inevitable death. One minute you could be throwing dice in Macau, gleefully planning to shag your ex, and the next your cranium will be cut in half by nervous pathologists. Steven Soderbergh's clinical thriller, analysing the likely response to a global pandemic, certainly ratchets up the tension but objective approach and multiple storylines prevents the audience from empathising with the characters and ultimately we left with the impression of a heavy handed Government Information broadcast.

Picking up the story from day 2 and the first anonymous victim stumbling under a lorry in his Hong Kong Soderbergh has deliberately avoided the usual disaster movie conventions, instead he's trying to understand the likely battle against a rogue flu. So we follow Laurence Fishburne's head of the Centre for Disease Control, with his field operative Kate Winslet trying to contain the virus and his top scientist Jennifer Ehle finding a way to beat it. All the while Matt Damon's everyman and Jude Law's harbinger of doom blogger are caught up and carried along by the collapse of society as fear and desperation become even more viral than the initial bug.

Soderbergh is trying to replicate his success with Traffic, weaving a multi-character arc around an issue we will all face from time to time, however the storylines don't provide enough of a variation to create a satisfying whole. In his 2000 masterpiece each of the major plot informed reactions to the others, here they feel tacked on, even when Fishburne and Law debate their point on TV news or when Marion Cotillard surveys Gwynneth Paltrow's last steps these seem ultimately disconnected events. Some sections manage to make an interesting case to have seen more of - ultimately the CDC sections are the most compelling - however others seem unnecessarily sparse (Cotillard is especially hard done by) and Matt Damon's personal travails come across as petty and small - and he loses his wife and stepson in the first 10 minutes of the film!

The messiness also seems to detract from the central thesis, the status quo for mankind isn't panic and disorder but trust and sacrifice. The scientist that tests a drug on herself, the reasercher who gives up a coat, the man in a queue picking up a passport, the importance of a handshake. These are the minor moments that define us as human beings.

We do see some nice performances, Jennifer Ehle's resourcefulness is a highlight, as is Elliott Gould's proud academic (a character I really wanted to see more of), indeed none of the cast are doing a bad job it's just a shame so many of them have very little to do.

Steven's work as a cinematography also throwbacks back to his earlier experiments with colour filters, here a sickly green hue permeates through the action, queasily altering our general perception. There are also some nice touches with out-of-focus shooting, even if we have seen all these before. The script also provides some belters, "Blogging isn't writing, it's graffiti with punctuation." easily winning plaudits as the most quotable line. So naturally I repeat here - spraypainting my thoughts on the wall of the internet.

Overall I would say this is a competent movie and would recommend it (if only to make everyone think twice about going to work when they have a cold) but I couldn't help thinking probably had something better inside of it, maybe a much longer miniseries or jettisoning the other stories and focusing on the work of the CDC could've have kept the film sharper.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I've said this elsewhere, but I'll say it here again (especially because I feel I keep ignoring the blogs on my blogroll, this one in particular - sorry). I love how smart but not pretentious this movie is, and I simultaneous like and distrust how clinical it feels (and how it sort of holds Paltrow's patient zero just a little bit in contempt). The ensemble is good, even though I hate ensembles which aren't really "ensemble-y" Law and Fishburne are my favourites, Cotillard is my least favourites but they're all pretty stellar.

I like your points about the importance of minor moments, even if it didn't strike me as much as it did you.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

I agree the film doesn't over play it's intelligence, especially when the production team are as switched on as the screenplay suggests.

I wonder if Gwynnie was a little too hard done by, maybe if she hadn't been doing the dirty in Chicago if her layover had been to see a childhood friend and not a shag whether the film would have more morally complex.