Contagion (2011) 3.29/5 (1)
3.29/51

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.3
Genre: Thriller, Disaster
Duration: 106 mins
Director: Steven Sodernergh
Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law

Steven Soderbergh has recently announced his intention to retire from directing and given the rate at which he has been churning them out over the last few years, one can understand his desire to step back. The calibre of these films is also impressive with every one of them proving interesting in their own way. Contagion is certainly no exception as it’s a uniquely sleek take on the “outbreak” movie. It follows the outbreak of a lethal hybrid strain of the swine and bird flus from “patient 0” to the point of near apocalypse with specific focus on the attempts of the various scientists and experts to culture, sequence, and kill the virus.

Contagion has many admirable qualities. Laurence Fishburn and Elliott Gould give standout performances as respectively a government and private scientist. Kate Winslet is even better as Fisburn’s “person on the ground” while Matt Damon as the beleaguered husband of Gwenneth Paltrow’s “patient 0” is strong despite the movie’s overall problem with personal subplots (more on this below). Soderbergh combines much of the exposition (of which the film has a lot) with Cliff Martinez’ energised score and overlaps the scenes with his usual verve. This gives the film a solid momentum despite the majority of the action being dialogue-based. Scott Z. Burns’ script is polished and technically informed which emphasises the authentic vibe which his director’s style naturally brings. The film is also full of striking imagery such as Jude Law’s subversive blogger wandering through the deserted streets tacking his propaganda flyers to walls and lamp posts while kitted out in an oxygen suit which evokes memories of Bruce Willis’ sample gathering expeditions in Twelve Monkeys.

Contagion tries its best to show snippets of the wider “outbreak” story. That is, it covers both the technical and medical efforts to contain the virus and the personal trials of the average Joe Citizen. The problem is that Soderbergh’s quasi-documentarian direction and Burns’ (the Bourne Ultimatum) slick writing style are both excellent at capturing the former but not always great at the latter. A better balance was needed on this project to prevent the sharp procedural and dispassionate quality of the scientific investigative scenes carrying over into the subjective drama thereby neutralising it. Thus, despite a considerable amount of time looking at the changes and stresses to the domestic life of many of its protagonists, there’s a distinctly impersonal feel to the story. This is particularly the case with Damon’s subplot which is almost entirely emotionally framed. The film would be better served if they had of discarded the personal stuff and focused exclusively on the technical and bureaucratic drama which in truth the film needed more of.

A second major issue concerns Law’s greedy blogger. Though there are some nice attempts to invert typical notions of conspiracy caricatures (including a nice nod to 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), such is the extent of his paranoia and his influence that it comes across as a little unbelievable. As such, this potentially fascinating subplot feels a little out of kilter with the rest of the film and only serves to distract from the extremely clear and even surgical focus of the main drama. Another subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organisation agent and some Chinese kidnappers is equally daft.

Contagion is a laudable effort from a great director and top cast and it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Fukasaku’s Virus and maybe even Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. As it is, it will probably please most mature science fiction fans though it certainly feels like it tried to do too much and got caught between two stools. Thus, those with a broader interest in film appreciation will be frustrated by the missed opportunities.

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