Director: Steven Soderbergh
Actors: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Demetri Martin, Elliot Gould, Enrico Colantoni, Chin Han
Actresses: Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle
Contagion is 106 minutes. I thought the first 104 minutes were interesting but unremarkable. Yes, if an unknown killer virus did start to spread, this is probably what would happen. But that doesn't necessarily make the plot exciting or emotional. The thing is, I don't think Contagion is going for excitement, scares, or emotion.
With that said, there are some moments. An autopsy scene that is sort of gross. A particular character's death. A dance. A revelation. One character's change from apparent do-gooder to inhumane Scrooge. I should clarify. The film follows Damon, Law, Fishburne, Winslet, Cotillard, and Ehle (the other characters, like Elliot Gould and Demetri Martin, operate within the arcs of a major character). And the running time is ONLY 106 minutes because that's the minimum time to convey the reactions (governmental, corporational, societal, medial, individual) to the pandemic. We don't linger with characters, and the effect is to minimize the viewers' connection to the characters. It's the difference between seeing an awesome dog you want to pet and actually petting that dog.
Later in the film, gangs form and start breaking into houses, looting and killing. For this to be exciting, scary, or emotional, the concept would have to develop. We'd need chunks of time dedicated to exploring the concept. We'd need a longer scene where a character goes from feeling safe to hearing a sound, to being chased, to being caught, held up, on the brink of death.
Instead, we have one scene where Damon hears gunshots and sees looters running out of a neighbor's home (this tells us individual homes aren't safe anymore). Later, we cut to Laurence Fishburne's wife being attacked by looters (this tells us families of high-ranking government employees are at risk). The scene lasts for maybe a minute. Then it cuts to Fishburne coming home and his wife being okay, if a little shaken.
So, we have the usual key points of an attack scene: signs of trouble, trouble, aftermath. But the narrative is missing--we're not immersed in the scenes. Which means we're not vicariously in the scenes.
I'm not saying this style is bad. Soderbergh's approach means that we aren't focused on our emotional response to the plot. He's allowing us to view from an analytical position. Because while this film is, ostensibly, a "pandemic thriller" a la Outbreak or 28 Days Later, it's really the closest Hollywood can get to making a Silent Spring. Silent Spring being Rachel Carson's paradigm-changing non-fiction novel about pesticides like DDT.
The movie uses a "Day #" system to keep the viewer aware of the timeline of events. Day 1 is withheld. For the first 104 minutes, we don't know what "the cause" of the virus is. Then we get minutes 105 and 106. It's not an outright condemnation of Industry-X (I won't reveal the cause). Again, the film is not emotional, it's scientific. But by saving the "cause" until the end, Soderbergh (and screenwriter Scott Burns) provide "the cause" with a prominent position. A position which, in a film that tries to keep the viewer in a contemplative state, will allow the "cause" to haunt viewers. "All of that death and disorder, from something so....simple..."
I liked Contagion but I didn't. I think it's poignant but I don't. I think it's important but I wonder if the implications are too subtle and people won't react to Contagion as they did Silent Spring and thus the movie will be rendered impotent.
The film has a broad range of moral choices. Couple all the moral crossroads with the cerebral-viewing and the film becomes a self-assessment: Would I make that choice? Would I make that choice? Would I make that choice? Do I know anyone that would do that? Do I know someone that would say that? Would I still care about such things? Would I do the same thing for my daughter? Even if Contagion fails to have its desired impact on policy or human behavior, it should be shown in every introductory anthropology class from now until the end of time.
Did I like it:
Yes. But I won't rush to see it again. It's lingered in my mind. I don't know. The acting is good. Some good shots. Matt Damon's wardrobe is hilarious. I thought the Marion Cotillard arc was weak and ambiguous. I wondered why Matt Damon's immunity didn't play a bigger role.
One Kate Winslet moment is replaying in my head, again and again and again and again.
I'm glad the film treats viewers like adults and appeals to the viewer cerebrally rather than emotionally or viscerally (via melodrama and special-effects). I'd like to see this same style of filmmaking used in other genres: superhero, action, romance, war, kung-fu, children's animated, comedy--just to see HOW it would operate in those realms and affect the the genres.
I think Contagion could have a huge influence on directors and screenplays. (It was hard not to say "could infect other directors and screenplays.")
What It's Good For:
-something for vegans and eco-friendly people and animal rights activists to point to
-people in the health-care field, journalists, government officials, people working in pharmaceuticals, so you can ask yourself "how would I react"?
-artists who want to learn about the use of multiple perspectives, various scopes
-date movie for people who think of themselves as Ivy-league capable
-not the tense, thriller you may think it could be
-no emotional connection to the plot
-loses track of some characters
% Character / %Actor's personality
Damon: 30/70 (more Matt Damon than Character)
Chin Han: 20/80
-Soderbergh: Ocean's 11; Traffic; Erin Brokovich
-Pandemic movies: Outbreak; 28 Days Later; Cabin Fever; [REC]; The Signal
-Lots of famous people together: Ocean's 11, 12, 13; New York, I Love You; Love Actually; Anchorman