FILM REVIEW: Contagion
In 2009, when the outbreak of the H1N1 virus infiltrated public consciousness, the reaction was one of mass germophobia. This is when we began to see hand sanitizer stations popping up in schools, hospitals and offices, with the companies producing them reaping all the benefits. These are the themes that surround Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
The film is being marketed as a thriller, and from the first sequence, it sure feels that way. We follow Beth Emhoff’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) return from a business trip in Hong Kong as she spreads the disease to the unsuspecting people around her, such as her son, leading to her sudden, inexplicable death. The opening shot of a black screen and a raspy cough makes us uneasily aware of the invisible threat of disease, particularly sitting in a dark theatre surrounded by dozens of potentially infected strangers. When the screen cuts to show the action, the yellow tint that Soderbergh imposes throughout the film further emphasizes the unclean, puss-coloured filth that pervades our universe. Matt Damon, who plays Beth’s grieving husband Mitch, provides the human side of this disease, the emotional resonance of sudden death gone unexplained, which is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the film.
There is no denying that Soderbergh is a talented filmmaker and this sequence proves that. His shots are innovative and interesting and how they are cut together creates a fast-paced rhythm that makes us move through the story as fast as the disease moves from one host body to the next.
However, talented filmmakers can sometimes get ahead of themselves. Soderbergh’s camera lingers on inanimate objects that could spread the disease, like Beth Emhoff’s credit card. In one scene, Mitch Emhoff picks up his sick stepson at school. As the pair exit, the camera lingers on the closing door to focus eventually on the door handle. This has no effect other than to slow the pacing of the montages that compose this entire film.
After the first sequence, the film starts over again to give us another montage of another person catching the disease, suffering and then dying from it. And then another, and another. The film begins and ends so many times that by the hour mark I became really aware of how uncomfortable theatre seats really are. Sure, there are overarching storylines, such as the plights of Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to understand and contain the spread of the virus, or the plight of Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) to find a cure, but the film has so many people to follow that all of these stories become rather light and rushed, condensed into a series of montages.
The most bizarre inclusion of one of these overarching stories is blogger Alan Krumwiede’s (Jude Law) fight to stop the cure from being made. Really, his motives are never entirely clear but we know he’s the bad guy because he opposes Dr. Cheever’s plan of action on television and there are several close-ups of him that reveal his snaggletooth. Even the reveal of his ulterior motives seem out of place in this film. It’s a storyline that forces us to look at the politics behind vaccines and inoculations when these would be better left to another film, like The Constant Gardener – because at least that film had time to deal with the complexity of the issue at hand.
In addition, these quick montages never leave us any room for emotional investment, so much so that by the end, human life has been portrayed as disposable for the audience as it is for the virus and we begin to lose interest in whether or not a cure is found. Why should we care if characters with which we have no emotional investment die by the millions? Nothing raises the stakes for the audience to feel that it could happen to them.
In an interview for IMDB, Matt Damon stated that the cast and crew wanted to make a film that depicted a virus epidemic in the most realistic way possible. As far as the story goes, they definitely achieved as much. What is most detrimental to that artistic goal is the overpowering, industrial and not-so-hip score by Soderbergh favourite Cliff Martinez. Martinez also recently did the score to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which I happened to love. In this film, one that relies so much on realism, the use of music has the complete opposite effect. Instead, with the style Soderbergh has chosen to integrate into this film, it begins to resemble a music video.
Also, when Mr. Soderbergh uses canted framing and extreme low-angles to frame reality, the—for lack of a better term—pretentiously artsy style of the film seems to imply to its audience that something else, something bigger than just a straight story, something a bit more…meaningful should be playing out before us.