‘Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met the wrong bat’. Stephen Soderbergh’s new thriller, Contagion charts the progression of a deadly mutating virus - part-pig, part-bat - as it spreads across the globe, indiscriminately killing human beings at an impossible speed. The film is full of lines as laughably silly as this one, all portentously intoned by Hollywood’s finest. On the possibility the disease is being spread by terrorism: ‘Somebody doesn’t need to weaponise the bird flu, the birds are already doing that’. On the outbreak of internet conspiracy theories: ‘Blogging is not writing - it’s graffiti with punctuation’. Such sentiments are uttered at a time when the human race is fighting for survival, yet they read like inane advertising copy. An hour and three quarters of this induces a malaise far more fatal than any mutating virus.
Contagion is a film that prides itself on its meticulous scientific research (as shown in the copious press notes) and its portrayal of a 21st-century world of technological advancement and globalisation. It attempts to chronicle a worldwide crisis by covering multiple narratives. The economical medium of film is well suited to the task and Contagion is at its most successful when it efficiently leaps between cities or provides punchy statistics. Where it fails is in its narrow definition of what ‘global’ means and its limited social scope, neither of which allow for any narrative progression. All we see is a world of expensively decorated homes, hotels and airport lounges, primarily populated by glamorous, affluent heroes. It’s an epidemic confined to the immaculately coiffed. America and Europe dominate. Does the disease reach Africa or the Middle East? Who knows - and judging by the negligence of Scott Z. Burns’s script - who cares!
Worse still is the film’s cartoonish presentation of China, confined to a similar role as the Soviet Union in Cold War Bond films. The outbreak starts in Hong Kong but it’s not an everyday urban centre that the viewer sees; it’s a morally dubious casino and unhygienic food market. The Chinese are presented as a nation intent on sabotaging the fight against the disease. A particularly ludicrous episode occurs when Dr Leonora Orantes (played by Marion Cotillard) is kidnapped and forced to stay in a rural village rather than return to Geneva with her vital scientific data. When a colleague comes to her rescue, armed with a batch of vaccines for the village inhabitants, Dr Orantes is horrified to learn that the syringes only contain a placebo. Could European and American powers be playing with people’s lives? But of course not! As her colleague explains, ‘the Chinese insisted on it’!
A voice of dissent does come in the form of a wonky-toothed Australian blogger, Alan Krumweide, a role obviously relished by Jude Law, who ably performs against type. A fan of conspiracy theories, Krumweide argues that the American government is in bed with drug companies and is withholding information about an effective homeopathic drug. This sub-plot creates an interesting parallel between the spread of internet-borne fear and contagious diseases but is neatly shut down when Krumweide is revealed to be an egotistical misanthrope, hell-bent on creating a name for himself amid the ensuing chaos. This narrative thread highlights the deeply conservative nature of the film. Western authority is not to be challenged. India may be experimenting with alternative medicine with some success but it is only the US and France who are close to discovering a vaccine (remember, despite its vast economy and scientific knowledge, China only wants to sabotage). When law and order break down, it is primarily stereotypical rioters - groups of young men - that we see raiding banks and gutting shops. Aside from a near-theft at the supermarket, we never see the everyday all-American hero, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), breaking the law, although presumably he must do so to survive.
The unquestioning maintenance of pre-disease social structures makes for a disappointingly dull film. At core, Contagion is about what happens when normality is eradicated by a previously unknown, unpredictable force. It is an ideal opportunity for imaginative scriptwriting but, sadly, very little changes and very little is challenged in the course of this film. Occasional moments of moral conflict and social tension are not interrogated sufficiently. Characters are under-developed, delivering what would make great film taglines with little emotion. As they wisecrack their way through scenes, tension and emotional connection evaporate. Moments of sympathy do pop up now and again, mainly due to fine acting. Matt Damon’s grief is well executed, Jennifer Ehle creates a likeable character and Kate Winslet’s panic as she begins to show symptoms is physically palpable, but there’s something missing.
Since the screening, I’ve been wondering if I were foolish to expect anything more from a mainstream thriller. Then last night, on a whim, I decided to re-watch Casablanca (1942). It’s not an obvious comparison but it’s a surprisingly instructive one. Both films explore what happens when a menacing force interrupts lives and threatens human existence throughout the world. They are both Hollywood productions with pithy dialogue, catchily written one-liners and a cast of international characters. As the credits closed, I suddenly realised Michael Curtiz’s film -in a strange way - points out what is missing in Soderbergh’s. Casablanca takes the microcosm of Rick’s bar to reflect the global situation: the desperation and cynicism; the tussles and tensions; the human need to maintain and create alternative social structures in chaotic circumstances. Casablanca builds the personal and global, the emotional and political into a blended crescendo. There is no such focus in Contagion, none of the warmth between characters, none of the healthily irreverent attitude. Despite Casablanca‘s clear propagandistic purpose, there is a subversive - and inclusive - championing of the underdog. The underdog is nowhere to be seen in Contagion, aside from in the characters of rioters or passive receivers of paternalistic assistance from the powerful. There is only one voice in Contagion and it is a rather empty one.