2011 // USA // Steven Soderbergh // September 17, 2011 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Galaxy 14 Cine)
Steven Soderbergh has never been a filmmaker who does things in a workmanlike way. Even his most trifling films carry tracings of his signature qualities: the easy conjuration of contemporary chill, the steely confidence in his formal approach, and the shameless infatuation with his subject matter that somehow still seems poised. Contagion exhibits these characteristics, but it just might be his most purely functional film. (My equivocation reflects the fact that I have not seen Full Frontal or Haywire). Bear in mind that this is the director who gave the world not only a fluffy, ecstatically hip remake of Ocean's Eleven, but two sequels to that film. The Ocean's films might be disposable, but the cast and crew's fun-drunk vibe pulses right out of the screen, tugging the viewer along on waves of color, music, and razor-sharp fashion. Not so with Contagion, which has a similar one-note simplicity, but drapes it in such matter-of-fact grimness that it ends up not functioning particularly well as either art or entertainment.
Structurally, the film is more-or-less a Disaster Film, right down to the ensemble cast and procession of micro-narratives. In this instance, the disaster is a flu-like viral epidemic, which begins in Hong Kong and rapidly spreads across the world, killing infected individuals in a matter of days. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns commendably maintain the focus on the scientists and medical doctors who are scrambling to understand the virus, contain its spread, and devise a cure. The film's approach celebrates the thankless work and unwavering dedication of its scientific protagonists: a CDC administrator (Laurence Fishburn), his field investigation ace (Kate Winslet), an experimental virologist (Jennifer Ehle), and a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard), among many others. The jargon comes fast and furious, but the film mostly refrains from glamorizing the practice of science with ludicrous, art-designed laboratory settings or laughably improbable technology. Nor does it paint the scientists as faultless superheroes, as it makes pains to show them succumbing to fear, arrogance, and selfishness in their weaker moments.
Matt Damon supplies the Everyman perspective as a suburbanite father whose wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) is one of the epidemic's first victims. He subsequently hunkers down with his daughter to hopefully outlast the plague and the resulting food shortages and violence. Inasmuch as the film has an antagonist other than the virus itself, it is Jude Law's conspiracy-preoccupied public health blogger, who rails against the evils of Big Pharma and government inefficacy, all while secretly profiting from his testimonials about a homeopathic "cure". (The blogger in me finds it unfortunate that Law's character is such a conniving asshole, but the scientist in me takes satisfaction in seeing homeopathic quackery so deservedly denigrated.)
The rigorously realistic, almost wonky way in which Contagion approaches its subject matter is admirable, and suitably fascinating for the 99.99% of filmgoers who don't live and breath epidemiology every day of their professional lives. Unfortunately, this commedable approach is employed solely to present a Cassandra-like message: Human civilization is vastly unprepared for the inevitable global epidemic that we know is coming, and if it survives it will mostly be by pure luck. That dire but clear-eyed declaration is the beginning and end of Contagion's purpose, effectively reducing the film to a work of slick agitprop on the behalf of the global public health infrastructure.
And more power to it in that respect. However, as a work of cinema there's just not much to Contagion other than what is presented on screen. Soderbergh has tackled sprawling ensemble works before with Traffic, but that film--for all its flaws--conveyed a profound appreciation for the complexities of human virtue and vice in an interconnected world. Contagion is thematically parched by comparison, and its stabs at humanizing pathos are weak. Soderbergh can be emotionally warm when appropriate (King of the Hill, Erin Brockovich), just as he can employ his more aloof style to find an oblique route under the skin of a character (The Limey, The Girlfriend Experience). However, neither of these approaches stands a chance of succeeding in Contagion, which spreads its story too thinly across multiple continents and characters, and is too fixated on justifiably frightening scientific fact.