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.
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.