Review: Contagion

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T.S. Eliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.” In a modern context, he could be talking about the basic and very real fear of mankind being wiped out by biological means rather than nuclear annihilation, and this is the stuff of Steven Soderbergh’s taut and smart thriller, Contagion. 

Written by Scott Z. Burns, the screenplay drips with all sorts of technical jargon, and has a cast full of Oscar nominees in lab coats looking at computer screens and furrowing their brows as they attempt to beat the clock to isolate and then discover a vaccine for a nasty new virus. The opening sequence, set to electronic music by Cliff Martinez, is a masterpiece of editing, as it shows how the disease travels from one person to another, from Kowloon to London to Tokyo to Minneapolis. If editor Stephen Mirrione isn’t nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing, then there is no justice.

Mirrione won an Oscar for editing Soderbergh’s Traffic, and Contagion reminds me a great deal of that film, although it doesn’t match the scope or pathos of it. While I enjoyed Contagion’s rhythm and world-spanning action, I strangely wasn’t terribly caught up in any human stories, which is odd considering it’s about a world-wide pandemic. There are attempts to give the film a human face, particularly in the case of Matt Damon, who is husband to the first victim, Gwyneth Paltrow. He and his teenage daughter witness the chaos of looting and bank-storming, and Damon is sort of the everyman of the film. It’s a nice performance, but edges into something out of a Lifetime movie.

Better are the scenes of doctors performing heroically. Laurence Fishburne is the head of the CDC, and Kate Winslet is his field-worker, who heads to Minnesota to track down the source. Meanwhile, Jennifer Ehle (the film’s best performance), Demetri Martin, and Elliot Gould are doctors searching for a vaccine, while Marion Cotillard is a representative of the World Health Organization who travels to Hong Kong and ends up a pawn in a political game. Her story is interrupted for a good chunk of the movie, and does not end satisfactorily, in my view.

The worst part of the movie involves a blogger and conspiracy-theorist, played by Jude Law. We know he’s a bad guy because he has bad teeth, and tells a room full of newspaper employees that print is dying. He publishes theories that the government is in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies, which isn’t terribly far-fetched, but the way Law plays it he might as well be claiming that the Earth is flat. As Manohla Dargis pointed out in her review, it’s an interesting switch from the muckraking cinema of the 1970s–in Contagion, the government is good, and the press is bad.

Still, on the whole, Contagion is expert filmmaking and as scary as anything from the mind of Wes Craven or John Carpenter. Walking out of the theater you might be searching for a hand sanitizer, and may think twice about shaking someone’s hand. Fishburne notes that the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 1 percent of the world’s population, but in those days international travel wasn’t nearly what is today.

My grade for Contagion: B

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

10 responses »

  1. ****SPOILERS AHEAD*****
    Liked it overall, but thought a lot of wind was taken out of its sails after the vaccine was discovered (the process of which, by the way, was not much more credible than the similar storyline in Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Inevitably, this robbed the story of much of its urgency, and I thought I could imagine a frustrated Soderbergh in the editing room trying to figure out a way to make it all work. As with Traffic, his style is very well suited to building the tension, but not as much to the human interest stories of the aftermath.

    I also thought he could have given more weight to Damon’s storyline. Things seemed awfully dire for him and his daughter – food rations are hard to come by, the neighbors are getting robbed and executed – but aside from a mild case of cabin fever by the daughter, they seem to do just fine. And I was wondering, how?

    But that first hour or so … wow. That is top-notch filmmaking, and I found it emotionally satisfying as well. The first scene between Damon and his daughter, where he’s still dazed over his wife and stepson’s death, was really well-handled. And I liked the Fishburne character’s obvious concern for Winslet out in the field – in fact, I thought this was Fishburne’s best work in years, easily. He and Winslet did a great job of converying the emotional stress of that line of work.

  2. I know no one cares what I thought, but an air of pretense would at least be more palatable to simply…being ignored.

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