Friday, September 16, 2011

Film Review: Contagion (2011)

It is perhaps only fitting, given its story of a deadly pandemic and the efforts of scientists and officials to contain it, that "clinical" is the only appropriate word for Contagion. It sets its stall out very early on when a business woman named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a trip to Hong Kong, falls ill, then dies coughing and spluttering. The seizure that marks the beginning of the end of her life is treated in a cold, distant and silent fashion that is deeply unnerving, as is the scene in which her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is informed of the tragedy. There's something painfully real about the efficient, calculated way in which the doctor informs him of the news, as well as Mitch's complete inability to comprehend what is happening to him.

That sense of characters being forever one step behind the events unfolding around them runs throughout Contagion as they find themselves coming to terms with some aspect of the crisis. The CDC, headed by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sets about trying to develop a vaccine through science, despite pressure from the military (represented by Bryan Cranston) and Homeland Security (represented by Enrico Colantoni) to come up with a solution as quickly as possible. They send a doctor (Kate Winslet) out to the Minnesota suburb where Paltrow lived to learn what she can about the virus, only for her to get caught up in the unfolding crisis. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation send an investogator (Marion Cotillard) to China to trace the origins of the outbreak by following Emhoff's movements, where she experiences firsthand the desperate lengths people will go to in order to survive. At the same time, a paranoid blogger (Jude Law) spreads rumours about the disease, some true and some false, which feed the growing sense of unease amongst the population. In each case, the situation overtakes the people involved.

Contagion's global scope and sprawling cast - there are about twenty important supporting characters alongside the core ensemble already mentioned - allow it to outline every stage of the outbreak in excruciatingly realistic detail. Director Steven Soderbergh places a disquieting focus on the little ways in which the disease spreads through commonplace items like door handles, a glass in a barman's hands, or through simple human contact. Contagion is at its most chilling as it depicts the many ways in which our interconnected world is susceptible to this all too plausible calamity, and in the quiet moments when airports, malls and gyms - places we think of as being busy, loud and alive - are rendered eerily empty and silent. There's little sensationalism here, just cold, unfeeling statistics.

The problem with Contagion is that the very things that make it interesting - its coldness, its bleakness, its stark realism - are also what make it difficult to watch. It's a cold, emotionless film about people desperately trying to solve a global crisis through the scientific method, a process which is difficult to make cinematic. What little is seen of the broader world, such as a harrowing scene in which Mitch and his daughter make a visit to a local supermarket as fear and panic have reduced the people of their quiet suburb to terrified looting, gives the film a fitful sense of urgency, but for the most part the external crisis is relayed through data spoken aloud by the characters. The death count keeps rising from single to double to septuple digits, but apart from the odd shot of an auditorium refashioned into a makeshift hospital or a mass grave we never see the effects. Characters die, giving a human face to the catastrophe, but most of the stories are so disparate that they ultimately feel weightless. For a film about its extinction, there is precious little humanity in Contagion.

Which is, to an extent, the point. Contagion isn't about people so much as ideas. It is about the idea of what a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish flu or polio would look like in a modern setting. It is about the idea of taking something that is so often used for cheap thrills, i.e. the outbreak of a killer virus, and treating it in the most banal and realistic manner possible. Intellectually, the film has a lot to offer, particularly in the way it depicts the gradual breakdown of society and the dangers of allowing rumours and fearmongering to drown out the words of scientists who are actually in a position to tackle the problem. "Contagion" refers to the spread of a disease, but also the spread of panic and confusion.

It's in this last area that the film fumbles most notably, thanks to its strange focus on Jude Law's character. Rather than taking newspapers and 24 hour news channels to task for spreading disinformation and fear whenever there's an outbreak of some heretofore unknown virus, the film lays into bloggers, who apparently have a far greater sway in disseminating rumours than traditional news outlets. It's a curiously misguided subplot in a story which otherwise feels almost too considered and calculated.

Grade: B