Steven Soderbergh has announced that he will be retiring from the film business after his next three films, the latest is the ensemble piece Contagion. A thriller which follows the outbreak of a fatal disease which starts with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Beth Emhoff falling prey to the disease on a business trip in Hong Kong. With this one infection it spreads throughout the world killing millions all through touching other people and the disease lying dormant on surfaces and objects touched by the infected.
On the face value Contagion is about the fight for human survival which owes great debt to one the most regular travelled places in contemporary horror cinema, the end of the world. Whether this is via the zombie apocalypse or something more akin to George Romero’s The Crazies, Contagion borrows many details from these films with the rampant paranoia and the downfall of society. A much more stylistic touch that is borrows is the synth drenched soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (Drive). His work is reminiscent of Goblin’s work on Dawn of the Dead and a John Carpenter soundtrack.
Unlike its stylistic brethren Soderbergh’s latest isn’t rife with gore and splatter; it’s much subtler than that. Nonetheless there is one scene which the BBFC has described as “brief medical gore”, where a scalp is pulled from Beth Emhoff’s skull to have doctors investigate any potential neural effects of the disease. As graphic as the image might be, it’s the sound effects that are explicit. This explicit medical nature is one of the strengths, perhaps not within the context of that scene but in the greater sense that the script had the involvement of leading voices in the field of epidemiology adding a believability and heightened reality to the disease. Such industry involvement makes the horror of Contagion unerringly real.
The written dialogue is strong and memorable with a quote that will inevitably outlive the source – “blogging isn’t writing, its graffiti with punctuation”. Every so often one of these solid gold lines will announce itself as the script of a talented writer in Scott Z. Burns. As pithy as the dialogue is and as authentic as the construction of the disease is, that script is also home to the greatest all-consuming flaw.
There is far too much plot to be housed within 106 minutes. Just running through some of the sub-plots should illuminate the over-written nature of Contagion. The central narrative is that of the centre for disease control and prevention’s control of this unknown disease. There’s at least three agents spread throughout the world battling this. Matt Damon’s fight for survival with his daughter, Jude Law’s unscrupulous blogger, the political containment of the disease, I could go on. At face value those few sub narrative strands might not seem like a point to pick up on as a flaw, yet these strands have sub-arcs and each of these arcs has an equal amount of time committed to them. The worst of the story is the inception of the killer disease which plays out with mouse trap-like precision. Which is fine but the source of something this dirty and brutal shouldn’t be brought to life so clinically and easily explained, sometimes ambiguity is king.
That’s not to say that the film is without praise. The cinematography also by Stephen Soderbergh is magnificent. The films photography really captures the stark imagery of a world ravaged. The shots of streets abandoned and destroyed by rioters, the contrast between the bustle and danger of people stockpiling and the fallout in the desolate streets abandoned by everything but empty bags and government representatives dressed in biohazard suits, it makes for a visually striking experience.
With its sickly green colour palette, Contagion is a great epidemic story that captures the paranoia and horror of social interaction and decay. A beautifully photographed film that’s always well-acted from the top with actors like Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne and the smaller roles filled by Bryan Cranston and Elliot Gould. It’s when the story takes precedence that it all falls down, take the scenes in which Marion Cotillard’s investigates the source of the disease and Jude Law’s (poorly accented) Australian anarchist blogger, these plot strands only murky up the plot with unnecessary details. Stephen Soderbergh may be at his directorial best but there is only so much he can do with such a densely populated script. Maybe it would’ve sat easier within the format of the TV serial.
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