Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

By Roderick Heath

Time advances, aesthetics shift, technologies update, morals and social maxims evolve, but some things remain constant. Especially movie clichés. The disaster movie, for instance, has hardly changed in form in more than six decades. You take a threat to a slice of, or all of, humanity, and pit against it characters from all walks of life who try to survive and/or nullify the threat. It’s a nifty generic conceit that allows storytellers to work at once on panoramic and microcosmic levels and tap into common anxieties and fantasies about what might happen when things go to hell. One subgenre located at the nexus of the disaster and science fiction movies is bi-fi, where a biological threat is the agent of destruction.

Bi-fi nominally exploits the wonder and terror in quite real and immediate concerns about potential pandemics, perceiving how the porous boundaries in our global village render us ever less insulated against such shocks. But it often tends to exploit other, less specific anxieties as well: that doctors, those virtual new priests of the modern world, might suddenly stop being able to offer us absolution from fear; that governments might gleefully let slip their most authoritarian impulses given half the chance and muster us all into neat rows to die; or that our neighbours, friends and we ourselves might, with the provocations of impending chaos, suddenly turn into marauding looters and killers when society starts crumbling. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, from a script by Scott Z. Burns, is immediately identifiable as belonging to the genre, and yet it possesses a veneer of the dispassionate analytical cinema Soderbergh turned on the likes of Traffic (2001) and Che (2008).

There’s no kind way to say that Contagion is one of the worst major recent films I’ve seen, so…that’ll have to do. The only wonder and terror Contagion generates is at the profligate expenditure of talent and the dizzying shapelessness of the filmmaking that can’t even rise to the level of the cheesiest ’70s all-star disaster flick or the average mid-’90s telemovie. I’ve confessed before my long-running distrust of Soderbergh’s oeuvre, and whereas Che made me consider laying down my arms, Contagion has me all guns blazing again. There’s something threatening about this terminally bland, unfocused, stake-free collage of reputable thespians achieving poses of mild concern in a procession of offices and labs, as if it presages an era in which, freed from the necessity engendered by shooting on real film, Hollywood’s technocrats can just slap together a project over the weekend and pass it off as a movie. Soderbergh directs with a pretence to docudrama spareness, and yet, as ever, I wonder if he’s ever watched a good one, so completely does he forget to include the “drama” half of the equation and so badly does he fumble the “docu” part. In Contagion, near-apocalyptic forces are unleashed, and yet even the few glimpses we get of chaos and dissolution are so neat and tritely staged that I seriously started to wonder if anyone in Hollywood knows what the rest of the world looks like, beyond the confines of select hotels and institutions.

Soderbergh, to his credit, kicks things off with some fast-paced montage work, as he introduces a Patient Zero, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), from whom a ripple of unintentional calamity spreads outwards. People she met in a Hong Kong casino, including a Ukrainian model (Daria Strokous) and a young local waiter (Chui Tien You), begin folding up and dying all around the world. After a stopover in Chicago for a quickie with a former boyfriend, Beth returns home to Minneapolis to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and her kids. She collapses in a fit in the kitchen and is rushed to hospital, where a postmortem reveals signs of a contagion so terrifying the pathologist tells his assistant to “call everyone!” The A-Team of medical science springs into action, as various health organisations rush to identify and find a solution to the disease, which begins to prove untreatable and fatal to a staggering number of the population. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a bigwig at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, contends first with the problem of arranging a response whilst worrying it might all prove to be another over-hyped menace.

Cheever sets Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) on the task of tracking the disease’s landfall in America and then arranging treatment and containment strategies. WHO official Dr. Leila Orontes (Marion Cotillard) tries to zero in on the source of infection, contending with obstructive Chinese officials, before finally being kidnapped by her liaison, Sun Feng (Chin Han), who feels obliged to try to use her as barter for a supposed secret cure the American and French governments are sitting on to save the remnants of his village. As the crisis worsens, Mitch, who’s immune, tries to weather the storms in the Minnesota suburbs as mass hysteria and mortality set in: after his stepson dies from the disease, he tries to keep his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) safe, fending off visits from her boyfriend Andrew (Brian J. O’Donnell). Meanwhile some plucky researchers, including CDC research wizards Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin), and Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), a grizzled outsider who plays by his own rules, become the first to grow the microbes successfully and lay the groundwork for finding a vaccine.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less convincing and compelling portrait of an international crisis than in this movie. Whilst Soderbergh is obviously trying to avoid the trashy hype of the likes of Outbreak (1995), he doesn’t succeed in filling his work with anything else that’s persuasive. The pretensions to realism are constantly undercut by the proliferation of famous movie actors playing characters with romance novel names, glimpsed in stodgy vignettes (some, like Martin and Gould, wasted to an astonishing degree). Any intended commitment to procedural integrity and continuity is quickly jettisoned as major plot elements, like Sussman’s and Hextall’s labours, are reduced to glib throwaways, in contrast with a ’30s biopic like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) that was able to develop not only a sense of process but also of drama in the process of trying to combat a microbe, not to mention a real classic of bi-fi like The Andromeda Strain (1970). There’s a far too cute piece of insta-exposition when the researchers manage to obtain security recordings that show Beth meeting several of the other infected people in pristine clarity and perfect situated detail.

In failing to deal interestingly with the disease itself, therefore, one might expect the real weight of Contagion’s interests to fall on another area, but instead it spreads itself so thinly that it communicates absolutely nothing with depth. There’s no continuity of mood or even detail from scene to scene: whilst there are occasional cutaways to shots of soldiers amassing to impose and maintain blockades, the film fails utterly to evolve a proper visual and thematic pattern of deepening crisis and desperate straits, as it doesn’t even seem able to decide on what level we should take the impact of the disease. Even in the brief vignettes of lawlessness and chaos glimpsed through Mitch’s eyes, there’s something stilted and antiseptic about the whole affair, with barely any sense of contiguity between the various story and character strands. Soderbergh’s idea of upsetting audience expectations is to give a shot of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head being peeled open in an autopsy. Any five minutes of George Romero’s The Crazies (1972) have more existential angst, ruthlessness, and bitter irony than the entirety of this addled slop.

Soderbergh can’t even decide how serious the problem he’s depicting is. While in one frame we’re seeing desperation and danger in the suburbs, as things around Mitch start to resemble The Omega Man (1972) or something, and rows of corpses are buried in mass graves a la The Devils (1971), in another we have our doctor heroes in their still perfectly functional labs looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Vogue Oscar preview spread. Characters come and go with rapidity and jarring disconnection that borders on contempt for storytelling, for example, when Hextall’s doctor father (Dan Flannery), who falls sick after weeks of labouring with disease victims, is trucked in three-quarters of the way through the film in a rather limp stab at stirring emotional involvement for Hextall, who has taken an experimental vaccine to test its effectiveness. Even Irwin Allen’s terrible The Swarm (1978) manages to extract more drama out of such an act than this film does, failing as it does to shake Ehle’s Mona Lisa smile a fraction of a millimetre. For a film that seems to propose itself as being about detail and studying chains of cause and effect, Contagion looks and feels so segmented and disconnected that it ends up operating a bit like a terrorist organisation full of cells who have no idea what each other are up to. Soderbergh has long had pretences to being a politically conscious filmmaker, and yet his politics and methods of relaying them are hackneyed, and here they are so sketchy and silly as to beggar belief. In the cheesiest attempt to raise a sort of everything-is-connected consciousness I can possibly imagine, the very last scene is the worst in this regard, as Soderbergh returns to the actual process of the first contamination of a pig Beth eats as having resulted from the bulldozing of forest by the corporation for which Beth was an executive.

Along the way, there are portraits of the untrustworthiness of Asians on both the official and personal level, with the latter supposedly leavened by Leila’s eventual empathy and collusion with her kidnappers, as she is seen tutoring kids in Sun Feng’s village—maybe more third world villages should shanghai brilliant white women—and rushing back to them when she learns they’ve been given a placebo in exchange for her. Like many other things in the movie, but perhaps most representative, this subplot is so weakly developed and offhandedly treated that it results in head-scratching bewilderment as to what Soderbergh and Burns thought they were accomplishing. Jude Law contributes the film’s most hilariously awful element, playing blogger and freelance Aussie journalist Adam Krumwiedler, the first of what will undoubtedly be many gross caricatures of Julian Assange in movies, who spreads whipped-up stories about corruption, secret cures, and malfeasance via the internet—because the internet and especially bloggers are evil, don’t you know—and turns out to be trying to make money by flogging a product called Forsythia that falsely claims to be a cure for the disease. Soderbergh gives us repeated scenes of Krumwiedler, complete with crooked front teeth, meeting with a hedge fund rep, billed in the credits as “Hedge Fund Man in Park” (Randy Lowell) to give you an idea of the precision screenwriting that went into this aspect, selling him on helping him flog Forsythia to a populace whom Krumwielder manipulates with rumours and conspiracy theories. It’s the partnership of the hypocritical scare-mongering left and the greedy, feckless right we’ve all not been waiting to see in a movie. Speaking of scene progressions that fail to make sense: in one scene Krumwiedler’s wearing a full-body suit to avoid being infected, and yet soon after he’s back chatting to the Hedge Fund guy in a public place without any protection at all, making it utterly apparent Soderbergh shot these scenes contiguously without pausing to think about the psychological or practical considerations of these characters in the flow of such a situation.

Krumwiedler’s wickedness continues when he attempts to disgrace Cheever by uncovering how Cheever tried to get his wife (Sanaa Lathan) to leave Chicago, and, of course she, like all foolish wives, lets it slip to friends, and so on and so forth—not that this plot element has actual consequences apart from causing Fishburne’s affect of stony decency to become slightly stiffer during press conferences. That Cheever’s actually a decent bloke is illustrated through his conversations with cleaning man Roger (John Hawkes, who might have reasonably expected his Winter’s Bone work might elevate out of parts like this), to whose son he gives his own dose of the vaccine once it arrives, because, well, he’s just good that way. Krumwiedler and taciturn Asians are not the limits of the film’s shallow villains, for Mears also has to deal with a ludicrously nasty Minnesota Department of Health official (Tara Mallen) on the way. One of the film’s few moments of any incipient menace and tragedy comes when Mears awakens in a hotel room to find herself infected, and hurries to track down the hotel employees she may have passed it on to. She is later glimpsed lying with other victims in the disease centre she helped set up, but Soderbergh can’t wring any irony out of that, chiefly because he segues into another cheap piece of pseudo-irony, as Cheever learns he can’t extract her to bring her to the CDC’s better facilities because the plane used for this has commandeered for a sick congressman.

Damon’s part as the lone assailed Everyman in this scenario has rightly been regarded as the best element of the film: certainly Damon plays Mitch, who staves off grief and anger at the sudden loss of wife and stepson and discovery of her infidelity to get down to the hard necessities of survival, with his usual cagey skill. He’s particularly good in the moment when he’s told his wife has died, the reporting medicos stating it in such a dispassionate fashion he doesn’t register the fact and goes on to ask to see her. But even in his subplot, the only real street-level vignette of the movie, Contagion displays a woeful lack of challenging darkness or skill in staging. Mitch glimpses riots in supermarkets—one infected woman comes up to him and gives a stage cough that sets him shepherding Jory away again—and signs of murder and pillage in neighbouring houses. But the biggest problem he has to deal with is keeping Andrew away from his daughter, who pouts and pounds out her frustrations on her iPhone, thus reminding us that, as bloggers are evil, so, too, all modern teens are self-involved and tech-addled to the point where even a major modern disaster all around them won’t inspire them to get their heads out of their asses. The profundity just keeps on a-comin’, folks. Even some of the smaller bits of business are clichéd, like an early moment where an infected man wanders dazedly in front of a truck, this being the second recent movie in a row I saw with this scene in it.

Not very long into Contagion I began to think about Fernando Mireilles’s popularly dismissed Blindness (2008), which, whilst overlong and excessively self-conscious, nonetheless employed and explored much of the same imagery and situational dynamics as Soderbergh’s film, whilst actually managing to invest them with personal and philosophical weight, as well as a grinding corporeal effect. Contagion, whilst a nominally more “believable” and parable-free approach to such a calamitous story, actually startled me with the lack of substance, the lack of immediacy, the lack of any genuine thought-provocation, invested in it. One aspect that particularly struck me was the fashion in which Contagion recycles a motif from one of the earliest bi-fi movies, Val Guest’s 80,000 Suspects (1963), in which Yolande Donlan’s unfaithful wife is a Typhoid Mary spreading disease throughout London. The fascinating repetition of the association of adultery and female sexual transgression reveals that, under all the new-age hype and facile realism, very little has changed in the (probably unconscious) minds of many mainstream filmmakers. Contagion finally limps through to a final narrative phase where the threat dissipates and yet the movie steadfastly refuses to end until we get some unearned emotional milking (Mitch weeping for Beth at last, and Jory getting to dance with Andrew in a makeshift living room Prom Night). All that said, there are one or two scenes, as when Mears chases down one of Beth’s infected coworkers on a bus and particularly that in which Mears reports her own illness to Cheever, in which the strength of this high-caliber cast wasn’t wasted entirely—but not for want of trying. Soderbergh has reportedly been kicking about the idea of retiring. He should have done it sooner, because if this is what the end of the world looks like, we’ll go out with not a bang, but with a whimper of boredom.

  • walkerp spoke:
    26th/11/2011 to 4:03 pm

    Thank you for taking this hand grenade for me. I had been sort of tempted to rent this one, but you have convinced me that I would have been quite angry watching this film. Your review was entertaining enough!

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/11/2011 to 7:56 pm

    Glad to be of service, walkerp, although of course a lot of people seem to have liked and given a pass to this film. Perhaps my family and I (I watched this with them, as sometimes I like to sound off my own opinions with friends and family), who were all utterly flummoxed by how paltry this was, are simply a colony of terminal misanthropes you should ignore. I just don’t know anymore.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    29th/11/2011 to 4:37 pm

    I like this film more than you do Rod, but I won’t be going to the mat for it, as to be honest I have been disappointed with nearly all of Soderbergh’s recent output. I’ve gotten into some rows dicing films like CHE , THE INFORMANT and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. This is a polite , but pointed takedown that has the added advantage of being very persuasive.

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/11/2011 to 7:30 pm

    I just don’t think I can take Soderbergh seriously as a filmmaker any more, Sam. This obviously wasn’t one of his more personal films but even his personal films have…less than meets the eye going on in them.

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