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Written by: Sam Fragoso on September 9, 2011

September 9, 2011 | 27 comments | Featured, Old Format

Contagion

Whether it’s the superb Traffic, the blockbuster Ocean series, or something as unique as The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh never fails to be interesting. Contagion, his newest endeavor, is no exception. Here’s a taut and engrossing film that doesn’t baby its audience or spoon-feed every little interaction. However, the picture does contain the same fundamental and redundant problems that occur all too frequently in Soderbergh’s filmmaking: Contagion lacks compelling emotional elements, convolutes the screen with far too many story lines, and overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who is responsible for The Bourne Ultimatum and The Informant!) is front and center here – crafting something from scratch and concocting a story of many complexities.

Contagion is a techno action-thriller focused on the threat posed by a dangerous and deadly disease, spreading quickly throughout the world. With the disease refusing to isolate, evading origin, and rejecting any type of cure, it morphs into an epidemic of the highest order.

The selling point of the picture is that this sort of predicament can and has happened. Everyone remembers influenza and swine flu a few years back – and the harsh realities and outcomes that were brought forth from the diseases. Imagine that, and multiply the amount of deaths and restraints on people by 100.

In order to give the audience a worldly and knowing view of what’s going on around the globe, Burns creates multiple, diverse storylines.

Just to name the major players we have Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) the possible origin of the disease that sparks the proceeding events. Then her husband played by Matt Damon who is genetically immune to the disease – Laurence Fishburne as a hard-nosed doctor trying to make ethical decisions in the best interest of both himself and the country – Jude Law as an online blogger who prides himself on telling the truth, reporting on the epidemic and possibly inventing a cure – Kate Winslet as a seemingly living saint masquerading as a dedicated doctor – and of course Marion Cotillard as a Government representative who gets caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One thing is for sure: Contagion should get serious recognition come Oscar season for best ensemble. Without diverging into a tangent, the sub-characters here are fantastic (and in some cases far more interesting than our protagonists) – including actors such as John Hawkes (nominated for best supporting actor in last year’s Winter’s Bone), Grace Rex, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and Bryan Cranston.

While the round about cast is impressive, it ultimately comes to be the film’s breaking point. We have too many big name actors all fighting for fair screen time and juicy dialogue. The result is merely lackadaisical storytelling.

Fishburne and Winslet star in Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion"

Marion Cotillard’s character, for example, seems to be completely forgotten for about 35 minute of the film – gone, vanished, non-existent. Winslet’s character is the most prominent and engaging, but soon disperses for the sake of the disease. Damon’s stereotypical father role does nothing for the picture but add disingenuous sentiment. These and more character (and plot) decisions don’t come off as clever or dramatic, but mostly Soderbergh realizing that he has far too many individual storylines to handle in one, cohesive film.

Though, the funny thing is I enjoyed Contagion and was quite satisfied with the final product immediately afterwards. But then, I gave the picture some fair, honest critical thought. What I found was that here’s a picture that you can appreciate and not bother with dissecting its logistics – or you can break it down and ultimately come to a conclusion that this is one flawed, though engrossing mess.

There’s enough competent material and solid performances to keep you awake, despite Soderbergh’s sloppy and pondersome editing. The lack of dramatics and prolonged run-time keep the film far off from something great – but again the film bounces back with fine camerawork and a pulsating score that builds up a dreary, dark, and sporadically horrifying atmosphere.

Contagion thrives in its subtleties and sub-characters, while simultaneously proclaiming itself as an amiable, though entertaining “What if” techno-action-drama.

Now, time to wash the hands.

Rating: ★★½☆

Contagion

Contagion (2011)

Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Runtime: 106 minutes

Genre: thriller, drama

Trailer Contagion

Comments

There are 27 comments for this post.

  1. Andy Buckle on September 9, 2011 4:34 pm

    I’m a little disappointed to hear that film becomes convoluted and that Soderbergh struggles to balance the storylines. But, with a cast like that, I’m certainly looking forward to it! Nice write-up my friend.

  2. Duke on September 9, 2011 4:36 pm

    Thanks Andy. I’m in the minority for this one – though I did enjoy a great deal of the picture.

  3. Bradford B. Navarro on September 9, 2011 8:07 pm

    Dead on Sam; nice work. Just watched this movie about an hour ago and most of it was obviously what I thought was going to happen — too predictable. I read your article before watching it so you gave me a good insight on what to expect. I noticed it did lack an amount of compassion for the characters, so needless to say I was disappointed to the end result. Again, good job on the articles and keep it up bud.

  4. Duke on September 9, 2011 10:37 pm

    Thanks for reading Brad – looking forward to talking about the film on Monday with you …

  5. Alex on September 10, 2011 1:08 pm

    You may be in the minority, but your points are fair and balanced. I enjoyed the movie a little more than you, but that’s mostly because I’m all but obsessed with Sodbergh’s overall technique.

  6. Duke on September 10, 2011 7:38 pm

    I like Soderbergh – especially “The Informant” and “Traffic” – not enamored with him, though.

  7. Lesya on September 11, 2011 5:54 am

    Too bad if you say it lacks emotion. I wasn’t much interested because it could turn to be another film about deadly disease. However, the cast ensures I’ll see it.

  8. Duke on September 11, 2011 11:31 am

    The cast is utilized as a double edged sword here.

  9. Vik V. on September 11, 2011 10:06 pm

    I usually have an aversion towards these disease-outbreak kind of films. This one looks worth viewing, however.

  10. Duke on September 11, 2011 10:11 pm

    It’s interesting, check it out.

  11. Dan O. on September 12, 2011 11:05 pm

    For some reason, I really did have a little bit of fear in my system, but sure as hell not as much as Soderbergh wanted me to and for some reason I just never felt involved with these characters and their stories. Nice review Sam. Check out my review when you get a chance!

  12. Duke on September 12, 2011 11:08 pm

    Will do Dan! Thanks for reading.

  13. Travis McCollum on September 13, 2011 1:48 am

    Well since I’ve made it one of my life goals to see every Soderbergh film (of which I’ve accomplished up until Contagion) I probably will end up seeing it, but now I’ll go in with some cautions. Great review

  14. Duke on September 14, 2011 10:09 pm

    Thanks for reading Travis. Nice to see you around, again!

  15. NeverTooEarlyMP on September 17, 2011 9:02 am

    It didn’t bother me as much that Cotillard went missing, since I read it as a parallel to what was happening with her character. Agree about Damon being too sentimental, but I guess they needed an every-man. Great review!

  16. Duke on September 17, 2011 3:44 pm

    Thanks for reading, I’ll make sure to get back to your site soon.

  17. Duke & The Movies :: Page not found on September 29, 2011 5:01 pm

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  18. Tom Clift on October 22, 2011 3:24 pm

    One day we’ll agree on a film Sam, but it sure as hell won’t be today!

    While I agree that the Cotillard story is probably the weakest/most unnecesary element, I’m not sure there was much more to show after a certain point. Really, rather than being too long like you accused, I thought it was too short. If you thought things were underdeveloped, surely the solution would be more time, not less? As I mused on Andy’s blog, imagine if it had been a six part miniseries! Given the mere 106 minute runtime, I was amazed by how much social commentary and world building they were able to cram in there.

    One point we especially disagree on though, is the Matt Damon character. Disingenious sentiment? Have a heart man! I thought his character – bolstered by another great performance from one of Hollywood’s MVPs – did a remarkable job holding things together given what he was going through. I was also really invested in the romance between his daughter and her boyfriend, which is more than I can say for most token love stories in Hollywood blockbusters, most of which would be given twice as much screen time at least.

    All that said, excellent review. I don’t enjoy disagreeing with anyone as much as I enjoy disagreeing with you Sam!

  19. Duke on October 22, 2011 8:05 pm

    Haha…

    The romance between the daughter and that kid was dreadful. Annoying and entirely unnecessary. In hindsight, there’s some sympathy to be had with Damon’s character. But I still feel he overplays it and the sentiment comes at the most awkward times.

    I wouldn’t mind the length, if I found the multiple story lines intriguing. Just because Soderebergh crammed plenty of social commentary and expository dialogue, doesn’t necessary mean it’s worth listening to – or most importantly, fascinating.

    Thinking back, it was really a mistake to *spoiler* kill of Winslet’s character. She was the best part of the film. Hands down.

  20. Tom Clift on October 22, 2011 8:56 pm

    Hmmm, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree over the romance (although I don’t think you’re giving it enough credit – I think it was necessary in the sense that it conveyed a very human desire for love and normalcy in an un-normal world).

    I agree that Winslet probably gives the strongest performance, but I think killing her is just another way the film sticks to realism so well. A major complaint you had of the film was that it was overly sentimental. One could hardly accuse the decision to kill her off of that!

  21. Duke on October 22, 2011 9:51 pm

    I mentioned one character was overly sentimental – the rest of the film is rather cold mate. Sure, it sticks to realism – and it has a right to kill of characters. But I feel, personally, that you’d kill off a character not as fantastic as Winslet.

  22. Tom Clift on October 23, 2011 2:35 am

    Fair call. I liked Winslet a lot and was sad to see her go, but then again I think I LIKED that they were willing to kill off a major character (played by a major star) so early in the proceedings.

  23. Andrew Buckle on October 23, 2011 5:27 am

    I liked this just as much as Tom, and I’ll just say I agree that Winslet was the highlight amongst the performances. Marion was under-utilised and I would have liked to have seen a little bit more from Damon’s character – how he was personally coping etc. We got a bit, but I didn’t feel as connected to him as Winslet. I also liked the text message relationship. I thought it was effective.

    But, to cram so much into this film – and sure, there were some expository sequences, but it was still fascinating and pushed the film along – was a pretty good effort. I like Soderbergh’s style, and we come back to it again, the soundtrack gave it an additional pulse.

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