I tend to liken films to airline flights. Good ones get you exactly where you need to go in spite of any ups or downs. While bad ones can take forever to get off of the ground, be rocky to the point of nausea and overall are pretty miserable for all involved.
Directors are the pilots of the whole experience, handling all kinds of factors – such as characters, pacing and plot – in order to give the audience the best experience possible. I don’t think that anyone would argue with me that there’s nothing quite like being cradled in the arms of a confident director. Contagion is exactly that type of film and a journey completely worth taking.
Virus themed films or eco-thrillers tend to fall in neatly with the sci-fi/horror genre. Their diseased roots reaching all the way back to the ‘disaster’ films era of the early 70’s with such films as Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man and the original George Romero helmed thriller, The Crazies. Personally, I have always felt that these type of films where in the same neighborhood, distant cousins if you were, to zombie films. Mainly because they usually always deal in some sort of epidemic/pandemic event that threatens to extinguish life as we know it. Which goes a long way to explaining their mass appeal because typically everyone is at risk. And just like zombie flicks, survival is the name of the game. The enemy could be anyone and everyone. And how do survive an enemy that you not only cannot touch but you cannot even see.
The primary distinction between virus thrillers and zombie films is that there’s usually time to prevent the virus from overtaking the human race, search for a cure. There are exceptions to that rule to be sure, such as when the virus has already done its damage and it’s more of a post-apocalyptic scenario. For instance, The Omega Man/I Am Legend, 28 Days/Weeks Later or Stephen King’s The Stand where the objective is survival or rebuilding some semblance of a civilization.
The aptly named Contagion hits the ground running with some very deft and slick filmmaking that immediately engages the audience in the stakes of the story. Starting with the sounds of nasty cough over a black screen that turns out to Gwyneth Paltrow waiting at a Hong Kong airport talking to someone on her cell phone. She thinks that she’s simply coming down with ‘something’. Subtitle text informs the audience that it’s Day 2. You rapidly get the impression that things may not turn out so well for ole’ Gwyneth, as she goes form having a little cough to violent seizures in front of her husband, played by Matt Damon, in a matter of only three days. As other characters are introduced, you see subtitles in multiple major cities around the globe with respective populations. Five million here, twenty-six million there. The numbers are staggering for a reason because you get a gauge for just how quickly a potentially deadly virus could spread in a densely populated area. In London, a pretty blond model is already symptomatic as is a bus rider in Tokyo, Japan.
Brilliant cinematography also adds to the increasing tension of the situation as clever close-ups show viewers just how much common space people come into contact with as they navigate innocently through their lives; door knobs, glasses, subway poles, etc. After the first ten minutes, I wanted to take a bath in hand sanitizer and find a bubble somewhere to live in. The best way describe Contagion is Outbreak stuck in Traffic. Under the expert helm of Steven Sodenberg, the film plays out much more like a docu-drama than the typical Hollywood sci-fi thriller. The hefty cast consisting of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and several others couldn’t be in more skilled hands than Sodenberg. He goes multihyphenate on Contagion as the film’s producer, director and cinematographer proving that he is still our generations best ensemble director this side of ‘Nashville’.
The performances are all top-notch even though some of the multi-tiered storylines do get lost in the shuffle. For someone not necessarily known for parental roles, Damon is compelling as the distraught widower who has to deal with his world unraveling at the seams while protecting his tween daughter. Laurence Fishburne plays the director of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta, an understated performance for a character whose decisions literally could mean life and death for millions of people. Kate Winslet plays one of Fishburne’s subordinate, a field agent sent by him to investigate the origin of the outbreak and hopefully track down patient zero. Marion Cotillard is a doctor for the WHO (World Health Organization), who tasked with their own investigation in China and is kidnapped by desperate citizens hoping to ransom her life for a vaccine that does not yet exist.
By far one of the most attention-grabbing performances is delivered by Jude Law, who portrays a freelance journalist blogger based in San Francisco who spends his time scouring the web and YouTube for controversial material to post to his site and potentially sell to the local newspaper. In a film that deals with mostly morally defined characters, Law’s character is most certainly a wild card. It just so happens, that he is first person to start blogging about the outbreak after stumbling across a web video of a Japanese bus rider who started showing symptoms half a world away. He immediately begins a smear campaign against federal organizations (like the CDC) and pharmaceutical companies on his blog. And as the situation becomes more dire worldwide, he actually begins to get international attention. He even videotapes himself taking an over-the-counter holistic medicine and ‘curing’ himself after he becomes symptomatic. He becomes a one-man revolution as he patrols the deserted, trash-lined streets of San Francisco spreading anti-establishment flyer and his own particular brand of gospel.
Law’s character troubled me the most only because it was within his performance that the audience is presented with the uglier side of human nature and journalistic opportunism. I was not upset because his character was so self-serving, just that I knew that there are certainly people like that out there. Whatever the case, he was fascinating to watch.
I find it hard to categorize Contagion as classical sci-fi thriller simply due to the fact that its approach is so real world and matter-of-fact that I felt that I could have easily have been watching a big budget reenactment on the History Channel. None of the usual Hollywood trappings and gift-wrappings are present at all. However, therein lies my main criticism of the film. From a technical and story telling aspect, the film is absolutely first-rate. The performances were all pretty spot-on and the pseudo-science presented to viewers is seemingly inscrutable. Nevertheless, much like the Tin Man the film lacks any substantial heart to any of the performances.
There are sentimental and moving moments to be sure but I believe that audience’s will find it challenging to hang their hats on the emotionality of any particular character. Something that I cannot say for many of Sodenberg’s other works like Traffic, Erin Brokovich or Out of Sight to name a few. I mean, heck, this was the man who was able to get the best performance I think we’ll ever see out of J-Lo. (Which is saying a lot).
Ultimately, Contagion does succeed in spinning a very engaging and plausible yarn about the tentative grasp that we, humankind, have on our place in grand scheme of things. And if I could lift a line from the film, if Jaws made people afraid to go into the water then Contagion will definitely make you afraid to even go outside. At least not without a Hazmat suit and a swimming pool’s worth of hand sanitizer.