Audiences test positive for "Contagion"



Movie Review


Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law

2011, 106 minutes, PG-13

Outside of zombie fiction, viral outbreaks are a theme rarely explored in film, particularly in a non-horror context. "Contagion" changed that, and director Roland Emmerich ought to take a few steps back - because this is the precursor to the next generation of disaster films.

A germaphobe's worst nightmare, "Contagion" tells the story of an epidemic spreading worldwide, as organizations rush to come up with a vaccine. Not so much CGI and action, this is more of a drama-thriller that rethinks the 'disaster film' approach.

Apocalyptic diseases aside, the film also hit home for any number of people who may share a vital dilemma with the characters onscreen: having to work while ill with no paid sick leave. This was clearly a point that the filmmakers wanted to address. The fictional disease was based upon the real-life swine flu outbreak, which, in reality, resulted in 7 million Americans catching the flu from coworkers, partially because many were refused paid sick days, according to the AFL-CIO blog.

And then came the jabs at big corporations, and the Center for Disease Control. Not quite your one-dimensional "Resident Evil," this film instead opted for a feeling of heightened realism, examining the likely governmental and scientific responses to a pandemic. Loss of social order is predictable, and was of course included. But the film really shined when it showed how big corporations were itching to capitalize on a disease of great magnitude, determining how much money they could squeeze from the idea of a vaccine, with no regard for human life.

A third underlying progressive element that Contagion had to offer was the subtle championing of female scientists, which Hollywood films are rapidly beginning to recognize.

The movie, however, was not without its moments of pretension, including snarky stabs at modern young writers ("blogging isn't journalism, it's graffiti with punctuation"). There were also lackluster moments, where plot points regarding characters played out in a shoddy fashion - for instance, the storyline regarding the wife of Fishburne's character, which essentially went nowhere.

And yet, there was a craftsmanship that I appreciated in the way that these storylines were executed. For one, it didn't take the clichéd route of intertwining the characters' respective storylines toward the film's climax. Instead, each actor had his or her own separate storyline, each connected to the greater plot at hand.

Indeed, "Contagion" violated modern film convention again and again, starting with the death of a character played by an A-List actor with little to no pretense. You've got to admire that kind of boldness in storytelling.

The tone of the film was a 50/50 experience. On one hand, the low-key, subtle approach taken had quite a charm, highlighting not only a working-class performance by Matt Damon that unexpectedly gripped the viewer's emotion, but quite a convincing performance by Jude Law, who played a charlatan trying to offer a supposed "cure" to the disease to his loyal fans (at which point, unfortunately, the film beat up on independent bloggers and vloggers).

However, one might feel that in certain instances, the film takes itself too seriously, coming off more like a socially correct procedural drama, rather than investing in the development of drawing emotional connections between audience and character (save for a few near-perfect scenes with Matt Damon's character).

That being said, I highly recommend at least one viewing of "Contagion," as no matter what opinion you walk away with, it will be at least partially, if not entirely, positive. Shortcomings aside, the great aspects of the movie outweigh the negatives, and the unique approach and plot set "Contagion" apart from other films, ultimately making it highly memorable.

Some may appreciate the slower pacing of the film, as it pushes the solid plot and captivating acting (the meat and potatoes of this movie) to the forefront. "Contagion" delivers the goods to the viewer while methodically, purposefully trudging onward, all the while presenting powerful scenes and dialogue.

 "Contagion," is a moving tale of an epidemic, seen through the eyes of a pragmatist. At the very least, it's nothing to sneeze at.

Image from official film Facebook page 


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  • Thanks for your interesting review Blake. I saw Contagion and hope to see it again; it’s one of those films that you keep thinking about, even days later.
    On reflection I am even more impressed with several aspects of the film: actors who were cast against type, like Elliot Gould and Brian Cranston in serious roles. And throughout the film the outstanding ensemble of actors gives what I consider low-key performances – I guess this would be thanks to the director and writer? The film may appear slow paced, there are no overwhelming effects and histrionic scenes.
    Two scenes of great subtlety stand out in my mind: the Matt Damon character looks out his kitchen window and we see only what he sees happening at the house next door, making it all the more shocking. And the scene where a man lying in a cot is terribly ill and feeling very cold but is told that there are no more blankets, then the woman in the next cot tries to hand him her coat.
    What is this film ‘about’? It covers lots of practical ground, showing in a fairly realistic way all the things that would happen now if this were ‘day 2’ here, and soon after. But it also shows people in a terrible situation behaving like human beings while others do not. I think this is what makes the film great.
    I was thinking of the book The Plague by French writer Albert Camus. I believe it was both a symbol of the French resistance to the nazis in WWII (it was published in 1947) as well as a novel showing how people behaved in a real bubonic plague situation. I reread it in the 1980s (as many did) during the height of the AIDS crisis when ‘the band played on’ but think I would like to reread it again now.
    One last thing, Kate Winslet is superb.

    Posted by Barbara R., 09/22/2011 12:34pm (4 years ago)

  • Seriously, why do so many bloggers take personal offense to the role the blogger played in this story? Virtually every profession, police officers, government officials, doctors, stock brokers, military, etc., have been portrayed as criminals, or at least questionable characters, at one time or another on the big screen, so why is it so hard to fathom that a blogger journalist could also possess negative attributes? I believe some of them do. And some of them don't. Is that hard to swallow or something? The importance of the blogger in this story was to portray how misinformation can be easily spread at a time of widespread uncertainty, and how people can fall for it. Are you saying ALL bloggers are incapable of questionable behavior, of misinforming the public, and even for their own benefit?

    Posted by chuey, 09/21/2011 11:16pm (4 years ago)

  • Unfortunately, they selected the most misunderstood order of mammals---chiroptera as the carriers of their fictitious outbreak. Adding more to the public's all ready distorted view.

    Posted by ben reed, 09/21/2011 9:25pm (4 years ago)

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