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Review: “Contagion”

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Produced by: Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Gregory Jacobs
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow
Music by: Cliff Martinez
Year: 2011


If you’ve ever seen a disaster movie, particularly one by The Day After Tomorrow director Roland Emmerich, and knowing what the genre usually holds in store for audiences, you’d be forgiven for not expecting much from this recent take on the genre from Steven Soderbergh. Contagion makes use of many of the same tropes every disaster movie since Airplane opened in 1970: A big cast of well-knowns face an unrelenting threat from an out of nowhere force (usually of nature) that threatens the very existence of themselves and/or humanity.

In The Day After Tomorrow, it was Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, and several others facing global warming. Cue giant wave and running from the cold front. In Contagion, it’s Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and many, many others facing a deadly, highly contagious disease. However, unlike most disaster films, Soderbergh takes a quieter, much more intimate approach and brings the tired genre up to a level that is at once riveting, emotionally resonant, and artfully produced.

Contagion is played completely straight, and, unlike most of its contemporaries, there’s very little, if anything, to laugh at. All of the characters are facing their own personal dilemmas and losses, of course, and their stories often intertwine and influence the other, but there’s a logical flow to the proceedings that doesn’t really require a suspension of disbelief. You’re simiply seeing into the lives of normal people whose lives are being influenced by an extraordinary event — “people” being the key word here, as none of the characters feels like they’re fulfilling a checklist (even when they are). In Contagion, you have the family (Damon, Paltrow, and newcomer Anna Jacoby-Heron), the CDC and those working with them (Fishburne, Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, and in an odd, almost cameo role, Demetri Martin), an epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard), and, of course, a conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) for good measure. (It’s kind of sad that the conspiracy theorist in today’s society doesn’t seem quite as over the top as he normally would have, but perhaps that’s a testament to the filmmakers and Jude Law’s performance?)

The film wastes no time getting started. A sickly woman sits in the middle of an airport. She’s an American, on her way home from a trip to China, waiting for her flight at a major airport in Chicago. She speaks to the man on her phone through coughs as they discuss the secret rendezvous they had the night before. He asks her what’s wrong with her voice. She’s just gotten a little sick, she says. And just like that, we’re introduced to the disease and several other infected people who pass through the airport, flying to various locations across the globe, spreading the illness and, ultimately, succumbing to its effects.

The film’s realism, tone, and look are its best qualities. The film has an appropriately dingy look to it, with various filters being used throughout to make the film look worn, cold, pale, or even nauseated. Quality editing is used to convey both the progress of scientific research on the disease and the lives of those afflicted by it. The best, most obvious example in the film are the scenes where the scientists study some security camera footage, wherein the camera cuts from a view from a lab to an intimate view within the scene.

The script is also very well put together. Scientific exposition is given naturally through dialogue and storytelling and actually adds to the drama. Audiences are reminded of real life diseases like H1-N1 and West Nile and just how susceptible we all are to these types of illnesses. There are times when Soderbergh preys on these fears and lets his camera linger ominously on common objects like doorknobs and telephones just enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck from the dangers surrounding us on every surface. Germophobes need not watch this film.

The only major complaint I have about Contagion is that it felt as though Damon and Jacoby-Heron weren’t ever given quite enough time to grieve before being forced to move on into recovery mode, though a scientifically-minded friend of mine, whose leftover employee passes made this review possible, complained that there wasn’t enough hard science in it for her. To each his own. Aside from these complaints, however, Contagion is a fascinating, very realistic disaster film, one that hopefully sets a new standard for the genre and encourages other thoughtful filmmakers to take on some other genres that have seen better days. I’d love to see the romantic comedy reworked to levels of greatness Nora Ephron couldn’t even dream of. Somebody get Christopher Nolan on the phone!

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5


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