Contagion, of course, is Soderbergh's latest disaster film, about an unknown virus that wreaks havoc all over the world. Normally such a pedestrian plotline would elicit either yawns or Michael Bay-esque associations with lots of frantic running and car chases and scientists in lab coats shrieking THE DISEASE IS ONLY 10% CONTAINED AND SPREADING while tapping away on futuristic-looking computers, but this isn't that kind of film. It's a film that takes its time, a film that delivers unflinching medical realism. Well, certain aspects aren't so realistic, but I'll get to that in a minute.
So it stars Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, who thankfully is the first one to die on-screen. Also starring a profoundly balding Jude Law as a rascally conspiracy theorist blogger and Lawrence Fishburne as the implausible director of the CDCP, who spends most of his screentime standing at podiums and saying something boring.
Lawrence Fishburne as a government official isn't the only implausibility in this movie -- nearly every official and scientist in this movie is either black or a woman. Only the military, which is full of gruff assholes, seems to have a majority of white men. It's as if the director tried to compensate for the realistic portrayal of the epidemic by casting an unbelievable rainbow coalition as the good guys. Viewers can take one look at the vaginas and bix noods helming the technocratic anti-disease crew, acting professionally and not at all like AA-promoted mediocrities, and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the events of this film pose far too little resemblance to reality to actually be frightening.
The opening scene implies that Paltrow cuckolds Damon with an unseen (we only hear her talking to him) ex-lover whom she meets at a Chicago airport, which becomes ground zero of the outbreak. This leads to a couple unnecessary scenes later on the film where Damon is caught up with angst over the fact that the mother of his two children is both dead from a mysterious disease AND is a slutty cheating whore...but he gets over it and the whole thing is forgotten by the end. Uh, okay.
Anyways, we see Paltrow grow even uglier and paler than her normal self...she thinks she just has a normal bug, but NO, her husband eventually finds her writhing on the floor and foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog that's just been tasered. This scene is pretty graphic, but it's a subsequent scene where the lucky autopsy techs flap open her bloody brainpan -- while intoning ominously about how this 'looks like nothing we've seen before' -- that made almost everyone in the audience flinch. Of course, being a badass, I didn't bat an eyelid. Then Matt Damon's son catches it too, and he's called home from school and left in the care of a sitter who finds him dead, pale and blue and spittle all around his mouth and generally looking pretty nasty. Damon is quarantined and pestered with questions about his wife's prior activities. They find out she was in Hong Kong before she flew into Chicago, which leads them to eventually cooperate with chink authorities to track the disease. Oh yeah, I forget to mention that a bunch of chinks and japs die because of the disease too, but nobody cared because they weren't important (i.e. related to MATT DAMON) and existed solely to create the impression that the disease was a global epidemic.
Also, there's a subplot with Damon's homely daughter trying to hook up with the cute boy next door who obviously wants to mack on her but is prevented by Damon because he might have the disease, blah blah. Near the end of the movie there's a Hallmark moment where the boy shows up with his immunization bracelet and ends up slowdancing in Damon's living room which is festooned with banners that read PROM NIGHT...while her dad gently weeps upstairs, gazing at pictures of his dead wife. It's as awkward and saccharine as it sounds. My eyes still hurt from rolling so hard.
Fuck, where was I? It's 5:30 AM. Why am I writing this?
I almost forgot, a strong womyn investigates the disease and gets PWNED because she stays in a hotel room where, I dunno, the maid had the disease too I guess. Anyways she gets pwned and it turns out the reason why she was allowed to be disease pwned is because the Shit Has Hit the Fan -- a senator catches the disease and has to be evacuated, making the strong womyn second priority, and quarantines are put into effect. This is where Contagion really starts to act like a disaster film, with military checkpoints, free-for-alls breaking out over medication and supplies, chimp-outs, the masses exposing the postlapsarian brutality seething below the calm surface of society, etc. Meanwhile Jude Law is busy promoting his quack antidote, Forsythia, through fraud (faking symptoms on his blog in order to demonstrate the 'cure') and propaganda (leaflets on cars, etc).
Eventually, with the help of another strong womyn, a vaccine is developed. And immediately all the tension dissolves. You would expect there would be complications -- the vaccine is delayed, there are dangerous side-effects, it doesn't work correctly, etc. No, the vaccine works perfectly, despite the warnings of Jude Law who is quickly apprehended for BLOG CRIME and brought to justice...except he gets out on bail and we don't see him again. Oh yeah, and Marion Cotillard (strong womyn #3) gets kidnapped by chink villagers in order to guarantee priority for vaccine shipments. Everything is restored to normal, Damon's ugly daughter gets to dance with neighbor boy, the end.
I really suck at summaries.
Anyways, I want to point out a few things. First, the director does an excellent job of maintaining a realistic tone by choosing to focus on the logistics of disease-handling and the technical communication between scientists and officials, rather than taking the easy Hollywood route and making the movie all about MATT DAMON trying to escape the city while being pursued by diseased maniacs. The mechanics of the disease and how it spreads is likewise plausible and not all that removed from SARS, swine flu, etc. As is later mentioned in the movie, the cause of the disease is the chance interaction of two animal species -- 'somewhere, the wrong bat met the wrong pig'. The etiology is apparently modeled after the real-life Nipah virus. There are various bits of jargon deployed here and there -- r0, fomites -- in a manner which is consistent, logical, and thankfully non-confusing. And despite some cheesy moments, the film generally resists the temptation to sentimentalize the human effects of the disease; the overall perspective is detached and suitably clinical. Secondly, I appreciated the slow pacing, which reminded me of 70s movies (in a good way) like The Andromeda Strain . ADD viewers will fucking hate this film.
Onto the negatives. I already pointed out the PC ridiculousness, so I'll start with the plot. There are way too many superfluous subplots, from Paltrow's fling, to the chink kidnapping, to the janitor with the troublesome hyperactive child who ends up being the first beneficiary of the vaccine thanks to the kind act of a noble negro (Fishburne again), to Damon's daughter's budding relationship with the boy next door, to the asshole blogger...essentially, this movie is a grabbag of subplots which are only (barely) united by the disease which looms in the foreground. Few of them, especially the blogger subplot, ever interact clearly with the main plot, so the narrative feels sprawling and disjointed. The movie would have been improved if it would have resisted engaging in these tangents and instead tightened its focus, concentrating on the disease's consequences and the efforts to contain it.
My biggest complaint, though, is that Contagion is an apology for managerialism. As far as I can tell, the blogger subplot is shoed-in to demonstrate the instability and corruption of people who don't trust the government and its ability to resolve crises. The underlying message is that if everyone stays calm and lets the government and its army of technocrats work their magic, everything will be fine. It's oddly pollyannish for a disaster film, and while I suppose it's refreshing that the villain isn't a pharmaceutical rep or a cigar-chomping businessman or some misanthropic scientist, it doesn't sit well with me. Soderbergh's lefty bent is established by his other films, most notably Erin Brockovich, but I was surprised to read that he also directed a Che documentary. Knowing this, I doubt my reading is off the mark.
Would I recommend it? I'll put it this way: if you go to your local theater right now, your other likely choices are comic book movies, sanctimonious liberal porn for the Lifetime set ( The Help ), a baseball biopic, an unnecessary remake or two, forgettable action-genre schlock leftover from summer, and Dolphin Tale . Oh yeah, and Drive , which is awesome. So I guess if you've already seen Drive and you still want to slap a dozen dollars down to see a film which eventually be on Redbox for a dollar anyways, you might as well see Contagion . I give it a thoroughly lukewarm recommendation.