Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Chin Han, Griffin Kane, Sanjay Gupta
Release Date: September 9, 2011
Contagion is a movie that showed much promise with its previews and its advertised premise, but in reality it turns into 100 minutes of wasted production opportunities used instead to push stereotypical propaganda at the viewer. With its notable ensemble cast, and a plot device that is not new but has been proven to be popular over the years, the Steven Soderbergh film had huge potential that will do nothing but disappoint the thriller/horror fans expecting an epidemic epic.
I have been quite a big fan of medical thrillers over the years, particularly those that focus on diseases and outbreaks. From stories of crazy Ebola-like viruses to weaponized disease, I’ve been fascinated with the concept both in its reality, and in its use as a plot device in thrillers. I have no rationalization for this attraction: perhaps it was the wonderful conclusion H.G. Wells brought us to in War of the Worlds, or perhaps it is the disease-based plot devices of some of my favorite zombie flicks. Either way, when word came out Soderbergh was taking up the subject; I was thrilled at the prospect.
Clearly, it’s not a new subject to make a film about. From the underrated Outbreak featuring Dustin Hoffman in the 1990’s, to the classic tale of The Andromeda Strain: the sub-genre of ‘Infectious Disease Films’ has had a history of some excellent film experiences. Contagion is not one of them.
With an impressive all-star cast featuring Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Chin Han, and many more, you would presume the movie to have an edge-of-your-seat ride considering the work Soderbergh has done in the past. But make no mistake: this is nothing like his work on the Ocean’s Eleven series. While Contagion has an excellent build up, there is no pay-off, no gratifying resolution that delivers any form of closure. Some may argue that it’s part of the artistic integrity of the piece, but in reality it lies in shoddy scriptwriting that delivers no explicit protagonist that the viewers can get behind.
The story begins in an airport layover in Chicago, as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on her way home from China. The opening sequence is in reality quite mesmerizing; as we follow the very first initial groups of infected people make their way through their daily lives – but with creepy emphasis on their coughing, their touching, and their interactions. The progression sets forth for an excellent build-up, where the audience is captivated by the characters in a way that a chess player begins placing the pieces at the beginning of a game.
Upon her homecoming to her family, her son Clark Morrow (Griffin Kane) catches the disease from her. In a very quick sequence of events, mother and son suffer severely from the infection and die rapidly and very much in pain. Husband Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) turns out to be unaccountably immune to the disease, which I suppose is okay because there’d be nothing worse than Jason Bourne getting taken out by the sniffles.
The powers that be, including the CDC and WHO, begin looking into the worldwide infections, as outbreaks begin to be reported also in Europe and Asia. Laurence Fishburne plays the high-up spokesperson and director (he is most likely in charge, but it is never explained) of the CDC, and sends Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to investigate the American outbreak.
Soon, the disease takes control faster than the experts had projected, spreading very rapidly and killing many. The CDC begin work and research into combating the disease, while Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a freelance journalist, spends his time exposing the poor management of the circumstances by the government with the crisis via his video podcast and blog. As the search for a vaccine continues, society begins shutting down, spawning riots and looting.
It is tiring to pinpoint any outstanding performances in this film, simply because there are too many characters the audience is following. After a while, we lose focus on who we’re supposed to be trailing in the story. Is it the Matt Damon character with the unexplainable invulnerability who just so happens to also have a daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) halfway through the film? Is it the Kate Winslet character who confronts the frustrating political hurdles when trying to get things under control? Contagion loses its guidance factor very early on, as it becomes clear that this is a recount of fictional events without focusing on any one particular character. And this is where the weakness of the film begins to kill it.
Even as the societal breakdown scenes are fabulous and remind me of a zombie movie without the zombies, by the point that arrives in the film, I found myself not caring about it. The audience had been diluted by dozens of characters by this point, making it hopeless to make any emotional connection with any one of them. This is unfortunate, especially when you see Damon putting in an excellent effort at portraying the tortured grieving husband – but the emotional impact does not exist when you do see him at long last break down in tears over how much he misses his Gwyneth. By the time it happens, I’ve spent so little time with the character that I found myself very indifferent to the situation.
With nobody to be drawn to, the audience then follows the movie as a sequence of events only. We go from beginning of infection to societal breakdown to restoration of order, but the affective elements are missing throughout the whole process. Contagion is a compassionless movie because we don’t see the true impact on each character.
Admittedly, the first half of Contagion is actually quite good. The overwhelming manner in which the disease spreads is both frightening and intriguing. Seeing Gwyneth Paltrow’s head get cut open during the autopsy scene is reminiscent of Saw, and will be pleasing for the horror fans (although, this is really the only gore component present in the film). The inner workings of the CDC as they begin to realize the seriousness of the situation is fascinating. Jude Law’s character in the first half is entertaining as the freelancer trying to expose the reality to the people.
But then the movie goes ass end up.
The second half of Contagion pungently veers into propaganda mode (the turn begins with Sanjay Gupta’s unnecessary cameo), which was more sickening than the disease’s symptoms.
Jude Law’s character is exposed by the “heroic government officials” as a crackpot swindler, with intent on faking his own infection to make a profit. Meanwhile, the higher government officials, such as Fishburne’s character for example, are shown as professional heroes. Ehle injects herself with an untried vaccine, while Fishburne is seeing giving his away to a co-worker’s child in a charitable manner.
Essentially, the second half of the movie paints the government as the “good guys”, while those who question or oppose (Jude Law’s character) are the nut jobs.
We know, in the real world, that a person – whether part of a government or opposed to it – is not a cut and dry, black and white individual. There are countless shades of grey to every individual, and this is never explored in the film. While it is true that there are folks in government that may have done things to be considered heroes, or have no evil agenda to push; not one single U.S. government character in this film is a douchebag trying to seek personal or political gain out of the emergency. I found this false portrayal to be so absurd that it totally pulled me out of the film. Considering the focus of the movie was to immerse the audience in a potentially real situation, the unreality of these situations becomes the AIDS that kills Contagion.
The next ridiculous aspect pushed in the film is the ongoing quest for a vaccine. Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines… that’s really all this film is about – the development of something to prevent one from getting the illness. Treatment or cures for those infected is NEVER addressed in the film whatsoever. In fact, all of the diseased people are left to die; pushing an agenda that vaccines are “the only way to go”. There is no quest for any antibiotic therapy to give any chance of recovery; instead the film leaps headfirst into the recent controversies and debates surrounding vaccinations and holds up a banner promoting the pro-vaccine sides of the arguments, in a style that is surely making big pharmaceutical corporations salivate and aroused.
Some may question my use of the word “propaganda” in regards to this film, but writer Scott Z. Burns was also the producer for the Al Gore driven An Inconvenient Truth, distributed by Participant Media, which also was behind this film as well. The studio, according to its Wikipedia page, are “described as politically active”, and that element is super-clear in Contagion.
Without attempting to sound politically biased by any stretch of the imagination, for me, the “government is the good guy” aspect of Contagion detracts immensely from the storyline. It has nothing really to do with Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians, but everything to do with dispiriting those who may question the motivations of any government – whether they’re right or wrong. This, combined with the wasted opportunity of potential performances from such an incredible cast, makes the movie a massive disappointment.
A nice subplot in the movie however, is where Marion Cotillard’s character is kidnapped by a group lead by Chin Han. There is a lot of grey area in this specific sub-plot, but is hardly explored, and very little focus is placed upon it at all.
Disappointingly, this part of the storyline becomes a “blink and you’ll miss it” aspect, and is yet another missed opportunity by the filmmakers. The ethical ambiguity of the Cotillard/Han scenes would have made for a hell of a movie on its own. Sadly, this was not to be.
While it was fun getting one’s hopes up during the first part of the movie, it quickly became a farce as it headed to its closing stages, pushing an agenda that anyone who questions the motivations of government officials is clearly one of the bad guys. And we know, in reality, that just isn’t the case at all.
The broad strokes Soderbergh and Burns paint on this canvas are dull. In many ways, I found myself drawing more comparisons with Contagion to Reefer Madness, than I did with The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak, for example.
Contagion is a disappointing experience, and a poorly disguised propaganda piece. With pun intended, avoid this one like the plague.
Rating: 1½ out of 5