Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 October 2011

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Director: Stephen Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet

USA/United Arab Emirates 2011

106 mins

‘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.

Eleanor McKeown

9 thoughts on “Contagion”

  1. This is such an insightful, intelligent and well written review; much better than the others I’ve read. I’m impressed. You put your finger on what I felt after leaving contagion: that is presented a fragmented, and unsatisfyingly unsophisticated portrait of societal breakdown.

    Also, the ending was somewhat so-what? I think perhaps because I didn’t really care if Paltrow’s character had had an affair, or where the virus had come from – these both seemed minor issues in the film. .

  2. Hang on a sec. a few problems here- we DO see matt damon breaking the law (burglary & looting for example?)

    The epidemic is not confined to the places shown in the film, the tracing of the disease (spread by a jet-setting corporate executive, if you were paying attention) and the search for a cure is. . Hence the amount of DOCTORS roles in the film, and yes, doctors & corporate executives can tend to live affluently, hence, the majority focus of the film is in affluent areas> Simple.

    I’m sorry if you think that people who deal with any type of deadly or serious situations in any profession, particularly very intelligent people, don’t tend to develop a wry or morbid sense of humour about their work, and exhibit such things when attempting to bridge an educational gap with a layman. It actually happens, you see…

  3. Thanks for the comments everyone. It’s interesting to hear different takes on the film.

    I should have taken more time over Matt Damon and his criminal activity! I somewhat disregarded the ‘burglary’ as I read his entering his neighbour’s home as an act of concern (after hearing gunshots) rather than pre-meditated crime with the subsequent taking of the shotgun as an opportune after-thought (and a fairly trouble-free act given the fatalities). On entering the supermarket, Damon clearly intended to steal but the fact that he did not was a little too convenient to my mind. He seemed to come away from every scenario as the unblemished hero. Given the catastrophic circumstances, I would have expected a little more moral ambiguity and perhaps more ugliness on screen.

    ‘Not a fan’ raises good points about the outbreak of the disease – without an international jetset, the virus would not have spread so quickly – and also about the attitude of those working with epidemics. A certain kind of cynicism and world weariness is a natural response from anyone dealing with mass fatalities. I guess I just found that there was neither enough wit nor variation in dialogue and not enough camaraderie between doctors to elicit empathy. I was left emotionally cold by the film (and troubled by the presentation of non-Western societies) and was trying to figure out what might have rectified the situation.

    Given that the filmmakers seemed to want to make an extensive, epic ‘global’ film, the solution I suggested was that the film could have broadened its focus: seeing how the virus affected a broader cross-section, rather than creating national stereotypes and a dissatisfying portrayal of one section of society. However, it would also have been possible to make a successful film with a much narrower remit – one that solely concentrated on those trying to quash the outbreak but for that I would have wanted more developed, complex characters and inspired scenarios.

  4. Good review, I do think the movie had a purpose and that was to promote vaccines and to undermine anyone that would say different, I would be interested if any Pharmaceutical company was involved in the making of this film. To make the movie better, I would have had the Woman that developed the vaccine drop dead at the end of the movie. But that would have gone against the makers agenda.

  5. This analysis effectively discourages me from seeing the movie, which I had not much expectation about anyway. But it also loses some credibility with the sentence about China and ” its vast economy and scientific knowledge”. China as a significant place in the world of scientific knowledge (and research)? I must have missed a season…
    So, I guess, a mediocre film, slashed by an over politically-correct critic.

  6. Ms McKeown’s review strikes me as spot on. The only pleasure I derived from this otherwise tedious global laboratory romp came early doors when Gwynnie takes a frothing nose dive. Tellingly, the Damon character seems to recover from the initial shock rather quickly …

  7. Excellent review and apt comparison to Casablanca. Although Contagion’s thesis is a well-worn one, Steven Soderbergh makes an excellent attempt at humanizing a medical disaster film. But you’re quite right about the lack of density of his message.

    No film should be didactic and yet every film conveys some moral or message. Contagion is a film too concerned with the scientific precision of depicting global corporate devastation. Although Soderbergh does attempt to address the film’s emotional wandering by relaying the moral dilemma Fishburne’s character faces and Damon’s emotional state after being dealt two blows–simultaneously. Soderbergh doesn’t quite deliver the visceral emotions of facing a new, changed world.

    I am very impressed by this film and it will be one of my top recommendations to friends for some time to come. But it is not perfect.

  8. Very well written review.
    Saw the movie yesterday and actually fell asleep towards the end.
    Like one of the comments above pointed out, I got out of the shock rather too quickly and there was no emotional connect whatsoever with the characters or their misery.

    I was also quite aghast at the casting choices.
    I think the agent sent out a bulk email to top 50 actors saying there is a quickie available to anyone interested- all you got to do is cough, puke and die.
    Then, in all likelihood, they ran out of budget and couldn’t cast Denzel as the african american intellectual lead doctor .. instead drafted someone who in my mental imagery was always a rather dumb, insignificant sidekick in a dozen shootout movies. This combined with the character’s bird flu related lines, weird surprise at the janitor overhearing the ‘shhh’ conversation, left me rather perplexed.

    Overall, a movie that goes well with popcorn.

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