What is it lately with movies that sound great to me but end up falling just a few yards short of my expectations? It seems like that has been happening for the last couple weeks now. Don’t get me wrong; “Contagion” has moments of greatness and true artistic reliability courtesy of the admired director Steven Soderbergh, who previously brought us the “Ocean’s” series, “The Girlfriend Experience” and “The Informant!,” a corporate satire film that initially didn’t do anything for me, but I have grown to like over time. Despite a few flashes of genius throughout, the film ultimately doesn’t settle as satisfactorily as I hoped.
Opening with a scandalous secret, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is about to make her connection flight from an important business meeting that took place in Hong Kong, where she also participated in a few casino games with some of her fellow workers. By the time she returns to Minneapolis to her family, she has already contracted a strange, unidentifiable disease that is spreading through her body at an unusually fast rate. On the second day since contact, the host shows symptoms no different from jet lag (coincidence, you cruel mistress!). But within just four days, Beth is sweating profusely, foaming at the mouth and suddenly seizing up on the kitchen floor. Her body finally surrenders to the disease the same day.
To say that her spontaneous death takes the family by surprise is an understatement. Upon receiving the tragic news from the doctor, her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) still replies, “So where is she? Can I talk to her?,” as if the words were still being registered in his brain as he spoke up. And within mere days of Beth’s demise, her son (Mitch’s stepson) Clark (Griffin Kane) also perishes because of the dreaded virus. What is going on here? Where did this disease come from? What is the cure?
Pretty interesting ideas going on here. Sicknesses have always struck me as kind of a fascinating thing to think about, as there are always new ones popping up all over the place and scaring perfectly healthy people into carrying extra hand sanitizer for good measure. These yearly scares like H1N1 and Anthrax quickly come to mind as real world examples of the scenario alluded to in the film. And in this case, a vaccine cannot be manufactured until scientists can harness the virus for themselves, and even then, it still takes an extended period of time for experimentation and even longer to mass distribute the cure to nations around the globe.
And time may not bode well for the unexposed masses. You know how it goes. It begins with two people that carry the sickness, but then they expose two people the next day. And then those people expose a few others the next day. And so on. And so on. Factor in the issue of air travel, and it won’t be too long before the entire world is gone.
I also could not help but draw parallels to the way that most sexually transmitted diseases spread, although since this is a contagion we are dealing with, simply touching another person or an infected surface provides a gateway for this illness. In fact, there is a scene where two “uninfected” teenagers are embracing each other in the snow, hormones running wild, when the girl says that she is hesitant to be out there with the guy. The guy replies somewhere along the lines of, “Relax. Neither of us caught the disease, so we obviously cannot give it to each other.”
Anyways, Mitch turns out to be immune to the deadly virus as he did not catch it from his wife or his son, but he does not want to take a chance with his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), as half of her immune system also comes from her mother’s gene pool. They would leave their home, but just their luck, the outbreak causes the greater Minneapolis area to be quarantined at the Wisconsin border. Now if you are already thinking ‘zombie movie’ in your head, I don’t blame you. I hate to burst your bubble, but it never does reach that extraordinary level of madness. However, in this great time of crisis when necessary resources are running super-low, survivors have the tendency to cause huge riots that reminded me a little bit of “Dawn Of The Dead.”
In truth, this is not quite the thriller that you may have been led to believe, given the almost horror movie impression given off by the trailers and TV spots for the film. “Contagion” in reality is more of a tense, brooding cautionary tale that might closely follow what would happen in real life if such a devastating incident were to plague the world. I’ve noticed that Soderbergh has an exclusive style of directing his scenes rather closely and carefully, which makes them resemble reality to a degree. I just wish that this reality could have been a little more affecting.
But here comes the deal-breaker for me: among the other primarily featured characters, there is Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) in charge of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) of Epidemic Intelligence Services who traces where the disease is heading and at what rate it multiplies, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization and Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a slimy Internet blogger who has a few conspiracy theories up his sleeve regarding the connections between government organizations, drug industries and ‘sickness scares.’ This guy may have the most influence on the world itself with the number of hits he gets on his blog, but like one character says, “blogging is just graffiti with punctuation’…hey, wait a minute…
The ultimate problem I am leading up to is that there are way too many lead roles to become fully invested in. While I must give credit to all of the cast for such fantastic individual performances, the script does not allow very much time for any of them to resonate nicely in our minds. The audience is given little time to learn about every one of them, and somewhere around the halfway mark, this one flaw ends up being disadvantageous to an otherwise interesting story.
I could almost endorse this work based solely on certain well-crafted and thought-provoking scenes and the great performances all around. It is one of those types of movies I want to recommend, but just cannot follow through with. Soderbergh has recently stated plans that he will soon retire from filmmaking to pursue painting. I don’t know about you, but I personally think he can go out on a better note than ‘not bad.’ He has the ability to crank out one more really great movie before departing from the biz.