Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Release Review: Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

Steven Soderbergh has developed a signature style, as seen in his acclaimed films Out of Sight, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven, of utilizing a multi-location montage style that makes use of a diverse array of sequence lengths and tones. Soderbergh has the unique ability (and a primary influence is evidently Robert Altman) to tell a universal story by weaving together multiple plot arcs and using an ensemble cast. In Contagion it is the rise of a worldwide pandemic, a 'fomite' transmission virus, as experienced by different levels of society. Documenting everyday citizens who fall victim and desperate medical professionals who are not only trying to find the source of the virus and develop a vaccine, but also need to control the mass panic that spreads just as fast as the virus itself.

The suspected source of the virus is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Minneapolis woman who collapses with severe seizures just days after returning from a business trip to Hong Kong. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to hospital but she dies of the unknown disease, as does Mitch's stepson a short time later. But Beth isn't the only one. We witness people in Hong Kong, China and Chicago succumbing to similar symptoms. Fearing an epidemic Dr Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, to Minneapolis to begin an investigation. She questions Beth's husband and work colleagues. It is revealed that Mitch is immune to the virus. 

Meanwhile CDC scientist Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) begins to study the virus in the attempts to culture a vaccine, enlisting the help of Professor Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould). Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a World Health Organisation epidemiologist, travels to Hong Kong to locate the origins of the virus, while a conspiracy-minded freelance journalist and video blogger, Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) claims that he recovered from the virus by using a drug called forsythia, and tries to take advantage of the outbreak by defaming CDC and Dr. Cheever and economically benefiting.

To tell this tale in a relatively concise 106 minutes, viewers should expect the film to jump all over the place – to cities all over the world (especially during the initial contraction) and include regularly appearing title cards that educate viewers with a location and a temporal reference to the days passed since the outbreak. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has endowed this film with references to the measures put in place by the CDC to contain and treat recent health scares such as Swine Flu in attempts to understand this newly discovered virus. He has remained attentive in his use of scientific jargon to explain what they are dealing with, while making the film absorbable for a mass audience. The result is a highly intelligent, atmospheric and scarily plausible thriller, that falls a little short on it’s potential due to how effectively it engages the audiences through its characterisations.

Much like in Traffic, where the epicenter of the film is evidently drugs, here it is the virus that is front and centre. While not all the characters are given equal screen time and in some cases, their stories never cross paths – this invisible but highly contagious threat exists in every single scene, whether floating in the air, smeared on doorframes or left on glasses. Soderbergh is constantly reminding us of its lurking presence by giving us lingering shots of these objects. His digital captures are clean and crisp with clever filtering, giving the film a 'stylised documentary' feel. The editing is also seamless. Working to a similar level of effectiveness as the recent scores of Hanna and Drive, Cliff Martinez’s superb electronic score perfectly accompanies the rising tension.

If Burns’ screenplay can be criticized for anything, it is perhaps for taking on a little bit too much and including a few too many character arcs. As a result, I feel many viewers will struggle to empathize with and become emotionally involved with some of the situations. Contagion is headlined by a fine cast of A-listers but the standout performance, for me, was Kate Winslet. Her highly intelligent, calculated and sympathetic CDC specialist epidemiologist was an inspiring and heroic figure, and her contraction of the virus in the middle of the film sure was a bold stroke.

I didn’t know what to make of Jude Law. Playing a conniving, arrogant and money-hungry blogger who tries to profit from the outbreak, he is smarmy, unethical and unsympathetic. Though he reacts rationally and thoughtfully, his attempts to turn pharmaceutical companies against one another and spread misleading information throughout the multimedia world (including Facebook and Twitter), makes him an important figure in the film as a social commentary. If such a crises were to exist in 2011, the Government would now be dealing with individuals like him. Marion Cotillard's abduction in Hong Kong is ignored for the better part of the second half, and then her story isn’t really resolved either.

I also felt that there should have more attention given to how Matt Damon’s character silently suffered with the knowledge that his wife might have been the origin of the virus, and how the misfortunes of those he loved were not transferred to him due to his curious immunity to the virus. His attempts to make home quarantine as normal for his teenage daughter as possible are quite moving. In addition to these Hollywood A-listers, there is a fine line-up of supports, including John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad). The latter is a military commander whose initial fear was that the disease was a bioweapon intended to cause terror over Thanksgiving.

Contagion is a skillfully constructed social horror that challenges the audience to consider how they would personally react. Anyone who watches this film will be forever more wary about their personal hygiene, such as the importance of washing ones hands regularly and avoiding contact with the face. The repercussions of this outbreak are scary (and from what I imagine, quite realistic) and Contagion is definitely a thought-provoking examination of a worldwide catastrophe that genuinely has the ability to create anxiety. A well-crafted, gripping and important film.

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)


  1. Good review, Andy, pretty much agree on all points. And of course Kate Winslet is best in show, how could she not be? Sad that Cotillard wasn't well served though. Cliff Martinez also did the Drive soundtrack; dude's on a roll.

  2. I really liked the way this film showed the virus spreading, and enjoyed the bulk of the film. But I didn't care for the ending as much.

    Plus, don't they know that it's dangerous to make fun of bloggers? What Jude Law does to the government, The LAMB could surely do to a movie. Luckily, most of us laughed instead of taking it personally.

    Great Review!

  3. @ Dwayne - She was excellent. Really believable and her frustrations, both with the lack of progress and having to deal with local governments and their ignorance. Yeah, you thought the same about Cotillard's story? While I liked Martinez' score in Drive, I think this was superior work.

    @ NeverTooEarlyMP - Yeah, I didn't take it too seriously, but it did raise some questions about the influence that bloggers (if prolific enough) can have on public opinion and action. Cheers!

  4. Movie scores on almost all counts. Your review is bang on target. After watching Midnight in Paris, under utilization of Cotillard here rankled a bit.
    You have the sense and the language for film criticism. Thanks

  5. Thankyou very much. Constructive feedback like this is so appreciated. Yeah, if the film possessed some disappointments, it was in the characters. Marion was underused, and apart from Winslet I didn't really connect with any. Still, a film this well crafted (cinematography, editing, score and performances) and possessing such a compelling and plausible central disaster, it's easy to forgive this aspect.

  6. I loved the film (seen it twice now), and while I wish it had been longer and dealt with some of the issues you mentioed in more detail (Marion Cotillard was especially short-changed), I still found it absolutely amazing that they crammed so much detail into a mere 106 minutes. Just imagine if it had been a six part miniseries!

    Martinez's score is also now my favourite of the year. Been listening non-stop for a week now.

  7. Yeah, if it was a miniseries it would have been amazing. Still, despite the diminished characterisations and depth, Burns' screenplay, and Soderbergh's style manage to squeeze in a lot of material. It was compelling from the opening minutes (and I could listen to that score all day) and just a scary and very possible premise that has the capacity to create anxiety. Definitely a film of high-quality, and though it has received positive responses, I am surprised that few have praised it as much as you and I.

  8. In the end it feels a little like a Fincher wannabee, rather than boasting its an identity in itself. Good review Andy.

  9. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it!