Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Premise: A dramatization of what could happen in the case of an international pandemic.
What Works: Contagion is an ambitious picture in that it attempts to have an epic scope without the look of an epic. The film literally travels all over the globe but its scenes are all essentially intimate. A fault of a lot of split narrative pictures, like Babel, is that the filmmakers try too hard to connect the storylines and the film ends up riddled with contrivances or coincidences. Contagion avoids that by allowing its characters a degree of isolation from each other. This film is intended to take the audience through humanity’s steps in coping with a highly contagious epidemic and in that it mostly succeeds, presenting a lot of expository information but doing so in an effective and streamlined way that does not lose sight of the human dimension. In its best moments, Contagion manages to keep its characters empathetic while also connecting them to the larger story. Credit for this is primarily due to the performers who do well all around but especially Matt Damon and Anna Jacoby-Heron as a father and daughter and Kate Winslet as a disease expert. Damon’s character gets some very challenging moments and he bears the emotional weight of almost the entire film. Jacoby-Heron has a similar challenge and Contagion has some great moments of familial love between the father and daughter but also frustration as the two of them are isolated together for the bulk of the pandemic. Kate Winslet plays a public health expert and more than any other official in the film she balances scientific expertise with the recognition of the human cost that this catastrophe will bring.
What Doesn’t: The problem with Contagion is that the film is spread too thin. There are just too many characters and a lot of talented actors are wasted in a film that does not give them anything to do. Many of the various subplots have no development and do not add anything to the story. Contagion might have gotten around this if it had used a found-footage approach like Paranormal Activity or Cloverfield since that filmmaking style tends to allow for shallow characterization. Contagion is also hurt by its casting. Although Contagion includes a number of great actors, many of them are high profile A-list movie stars such as Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet, and their presence is distracting. The film attempts to create a realistic scenario but the casting of so many familiar faces disrupts the film’s attempts at naturalistic filmmaking. The noise that these actors bring to Contagion is exacerbated by the thin storylines and the film plays more like a collection of cameos than an ensemble acting piece. Lastly, Contagion would benefit from a slightly nastier approach. Although the filmmakers behind of Contagion intend this to be a reputable mainstream piece, this picture is at least tangentially related to the zombie film and there are a number of scenarios and visuals borrowed from that genre. But Contagion is, ironically, a sanitized experience. It’s a movie about mass illness that doesn’t feature many sick people in it and it does not pick up on the primal fears of infection, the ugliness of disease, and un-glamorousness of the human body like horror pictures such as 28 Days Later or other disease-themed films like The Painted Veil.
Bottom Line: Contagion is a cinematic experiment as director Steven Soderbergh attempts to combine an A-list cast with a naturalistic scenario. In a way this is the contemporary equivalent of films like The Towering Inferno, but the casting negates in impact of the filmmaking style. Contagion would have done better with either a more traditional narrative structure or a found-footage approach that would have gotten the film around its thin characters.
Episode: #356 (September 18, 2011)