The Good: Realistic presentation of the effect of a plague throughout various facets of society, Acting.
The Bad: Realistic presentation of the effect of a plague throughout various facets of society, Pacing.
The Basics: Contagion does what it sets out to do extraordinarily well, but in the process creates a movie so far from entertaining as to be impossible to recommend.
Over the summer, there were very few preview trailers for movies that actually excited me and made me think "I'd like to see that!" One of the few was Contagion which had a more engaging teaser than The Dark Knight Rises. But now, having gotten back from the screening of the film, I am finding I have remarkably little to say, though I am content to begin with the idea that the trailer makers cut the trailer to make the film look much more engaging, tense and fast paced than the movie ever came close to being. This is not 28 Days Later (reviewed here!) where things happen fast and there are quick reversals and a pounding sense of tension throughout.
In fact, Contagion is boring. Someone had to say it and I am fine with it being me. The movie is great at what it does - with one niggling exception - and as a result, creates a reality that is so close to our reality that it becomes tiresome exceptionally quickly. Writer Scott Z. Burns explores the worldwide phenomenon of a disease and he and director Steven Soderbergh explore every major conceivable category of people. This makes for a realistic, documentary feel to the film, but a movie with characters so largely underdeveloped that it is impossible to invest in the fate of any of them.
Contagion explores the 144 days of a highly infectious disease that wipes out tens of millions of people. This film is populated by various strata which include: an immune private citizen, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, a CDC field operative, a World Health Organization worker, a blogger, the head of Homeland Security in the U.S., two doctors, and a translator for the epidemiologist. To give each of the perspectives, each is robbed of their quirks or enough airtime to actually be worth empathizing with. To wit, Marion Cotillard's character, the WHO epidemiologist Leonora Orantes, falls out of the film from Days 14 through Day 133 (or more, I stopped taking notes at that point). She is not missed, though her character has one of the more overt struggles in the movie it goes largely unseen.
Starting on Day 2, Beth Ehoff is in Chicago where she has just cheated on her husband, Mitch. She arrives home in Minneapolis, sweating and exhausted. The next day, a blogger in San Francisco, Alan Krumwiede, tries to bring the San Francisco Chronicle a story about a man dying on a subway in Asia. Not believing he has a significant story, he is sent on his way. But the next day, Beth dies with wide eyes, foaming at the mouth and her son, Clark, follows shortly thereafter. Mitch is put into quarantine as the CDC, under Dr. Ellis Cheaver sends Dr. Erin Mears to try to study and contain the disease.
But soon, containment is the least of the worries as an estimated one in twelve people worldwide contract the disease and the death toll mounts. Orantes is taken hostage by the survivors of a village desperate to get a cure and Dr. Hextall, seeing the virulence of the virus, takes the most risky step to try to save humanity. And back in Minneapolis, Mitch tries desperately to protect his daughter from looters and the boy she likes by barricading themselves in their home.
There is a lot going on in Contagion and it is a highly plot-driven film. I have four pages of notes on the movie which detail plot points of places mentioned, populations and events, but the movie boils down to yet another near-apocalypse from a viral outbreak and the race to save humanity. The film is presented almost like a documentary (though blissfully without annoying handheld camera work). As a result, the movie is almost entirely devoid of a soundtrack, save when Marion Cotillard is on screen and an in-scene piece of music near the very end of the movie. While this helps to maintain the reality of the movie, it also makes the movie that is allegedly 105 minutes long feel about four times that length.
Some of the plots add to the reality, but do nothing for the viewability of the film. Alan's story goes from being one of a smalltime blogger intuiting his way into the biggest story of the era to a tale of corruption that is ultimately disappointing. Alan exposes the disease, starts pressing the idea that Forsythia is an effective treatment, is put on legitimate news outlets and ends up being exposes as a man profiting off his own advice. The truly disappointing thing about his arc is how Burns makes him into a monolithic character who is homogeneously wrong. Krumwiede raises the legitimate point that by rushing the vaccine tests potential side effects and long-term effects are absolutely unknown and could lead to tremendous troubles in the future. This is a legitimate concern and at the moment when it seemed like the movie might explore that, Alan is instead completely discredited. The dialectic nature of the character and the conflict he has makes it seem far more simple than it ought to.
The same could be said for many of the characters at one point or another, but because the movie is so plot-driven, it is pointless to elaborate. Instead, it is worthwhile to focus on the other major plot problem. In a movie where it takes twelve days for a doctor no longer on the project to grow strains of the virus, it seems ridiculous that by the twenty-ninth day, an effective vaccine is in mass production. As looting skyrockets and Mitch observes his neighbors being murdered from across the street, the peril drops off abruptly and is replaced by a very political sensibility to the movie.
For those who are freaked out by medical movies, Contagion has shockingly little gore or truly objectionable material. While the trailer revealed one of the most shocking moments with an infected person walking into traffic, which happens very early in the movie, the most graphic moment of the film comes on Day 6 when Beth's autopsy is done and her skull is cut open. If you make it through that scene, it's smooth sailing the rest of the film for the graphic unsettling department.
What keeps the film from being a total wash is the acting. Contagion features the best performance I have yet seen from actress Kate Winslet. Winslet plays Dr. Mears and she is efficient, clinical and at the moments she needs to be, deeply human. She is troubled by what she sees in the field, especially when she has to keep from Mitch that Beth was having an affair. Winslet is good, especially as the movie goes on. Mears also gives the opportunity for Laurence Fishburne's Dr. Cheever to do something we seldom see in film; have a boss show concern for an employee in a realistic way. Fishburne handles the jargon just fine and he presents the facts of the spread of the disease in a way that anyone who has seen C.S.I. or The Matrix would expect him to. But when he has to ask Winslet's Mears how she is doing, Fishburne makes Cheever into one of the most human and relatable characters in Contagion.
Unfortunately, Matt Damon is not so lucky. Playing Mitch, Damon's time to have the character truly rocked by the implication of Beth's death or by the struggle to save his daughter is lost. Instead, he is given his golden moment to shine early in the film when Mitch is shocked by Beth's death and anyone who has seen the trailer has already seen that. After that, Mitch protects his daughter as best he can, but before he can ever be truly impacted by anything going on around him, the movie shifts focus.
I have had a terrible record this summer of picking the winner for the weekend box office. But where I went into Contagion convinced this would oust The Help at the domestic box office, now I am utterly unconvinced it has the stones. The movie is slow, dry and while it seems very real - outside how fast a vaccine is developed - it never pops, it is never entertaining. And it is virtually unwatchable as a result. Judging by how neutral the theater I was in seemed after the fact, I know I am not alone in this assessment.
For other works with Laurence Fishburne, check out my reviews of:
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Mission: Impossible III
The Matrix Revolutions
The Matrix Reloaded
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.