Entertainment Magazine

Review #3005: Contagion (2011)

Posted on the 13 September 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: Henry T.

Written by Scott Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Simply put, Contagion is an elongated, star-studded medical procedural. It doesn’t reveal any illuminating truths, other than perhaps the fact that humans will always panic in the face of a massive worldwide viral pandemic. This would seem like a viable candidate for some great drama, but the way famed director Steven Soderbergh presented the film left me cold and unaffected. Sure, it’s a bit disconcerting that something like this might happen in the future. The plot, however, is dictated by a certain course it has to take so I couldn’t really take it as seriously as the filmmakers hoped.

Review #3005: Contagion (2011)

The film tells the story of a mysterious virus that affects one person, a business executive named Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), that then spreads worldwide from there. This new, previously unknown virus is devastating to the human body, starting with a simple cough, then causing seizures, severe headaches, then death after what looks like three days’ exposure. The virus is spread not just through airborne exposure, but through skin contact with any object the host touches, making it quite effective at proliferating through the human population. Interwoven with the story of the virus are doctors from the CDC (played by Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, Kate Winslet, and Elliott Gould) and an epidemiologist from the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) who desperately try to stop the virus from spreading and killing. There is also an online blogger (Jude Law) who is out to “tell the truth” about the evil combination of the deadly virus, the CDC doctors, and the pharmaceutical companies that will profit from all of the death.

Once all the characters realize how dire the situation becomes, they proceed with differing methods at countering the spread of the virus. The CDC looks to contain the spread of the virus, mainly in the US since Patient Zero died there. The epidemiologist from the WHO is seeking the origin of the virus and how it got into the human population. All of this is presented in a clean, straightforward manner, although it really felt like I was being lectured to during early scenes. The entire film does feel like you stepped into a medical science seminar. If that’s your thing, then you would thoroughly enjoy this film.

There isn’t too much drama in showing a variety of people from all parts of life, from some parts of the world being affected something you can’t even see. I knew coming in that the virus was going to be stopped. I think the misstep was in not showing the process by which the virus is decimating humanity and the panic that would ensue. The film starts by slowly and methodically shows how it moves from one victim to the next and how the dread builds in the span of a few days. Then the filmmakers elect to jump time periods and show empty streets and a group that is unwilling to even go outside for fear of exposure.

What happens in between is never shown. There is one example of this that sticks out in my mind: Something menacing happens to Marion Cotillard’s character in the middle of the film. She is promptly absent for a large chunk of the ensuing running time before returning near the end of the film. I had completely forgotten that she was even in the movie before she shows up at the end. This was because it seemed like the filmmakers weren’t interested in her subplot and moved on to other parts of the overall plot. That was how a large chunk of the movie felt for me. Soderbergh likes sprawling films with lots of characters, but he often chooses to focus on certain parts of a film over others.

I did enjoy everything that occurred with the doctors in the CDC. Kate Winslet sells the limited action she is involved in, as one might expect from a recent Oscar winner. Laurence Fishburne is also solid as the head coordinator of the CDC’s effort to combat the virus. Beyond that, I just don’t think Soderbergh used his cast to the best of their abilities. I could have done without Matt Damon’s character and his unexplained immunity to the virus. They can only go so far with that character before he becomes extraneous to the plot.

Same with Jude Law’s blogger character, who seemed like he was in a different movie entirely. Soderbergh drew an all-star cast, but it’s like he’s a little kid stuck in a room with a bunch of toys. He doesn’t know how to use and deploy the cast properly. Contagion is a smart and methodical film, one that rewards patience and intelligence. But there’s no evocative feeling behind it. It is too cold and too sterile, unable to fully mine the human drama behind a terrible and all too real situation.

I feel that the theater-going experience for this film should also be noted, as it was rather unique. Throughout the film’s running length, there was nary a peep from the audience watching. Not even a cough, which I found interesting given the film’s subject matter and how the virus is initially spread. As the credits are rolling at the end of the film and we’re getting up to file out of the theater, there it goes: a single, solitary cough from one guy. And it seemed like it wasn’t in jest of the movie we all just watched. If anything, that demonstrates the great psychological impact of “Contagion”. It is the only film where I had the thought of just taking a bath consisting entirely of Purell sanitizer when I got home. “Outbreak”, a similar predecessor to this film, but more of an action thriller popcorn flick, would never cause a reaction of this magnitude.

Grade: 7/10

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