Reviewed By Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion
Although it’s not quite flu season, if director Steven Soderbergh has his way, a lot of people are going to think twice about what items they touch and how much Purell they slather on their hands throughout the day.
In his latest film, Contagion, a new virus hops a flight from Hong Kong, has a layover in Chicago, and lands safely in Minneapolis. Thanks to its ability to make new friends along the way, it isn’t long before transit hubs around the world make transmission of the disease easier than a 1 x 1 Rubik’s cube.
The film is a jumble of different viewpoints; ranging from doctors at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin), to government/military officials (Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston), to a epidemiologist from the World Heath Organization sent to Hong Kong (Marion Cotillard), to a freelance online journalist in San Francisco (Jude Law), to a Matt Damon (played by Matt Damon) in Minneapolis.
The story attempts to cover nearly every societal angle surrounding a worldwide epidemic. There are cover-up insinuations, medical procedures and steps necessary to create a vaccine, consequences of mob mentalities and mass panic, and of course, plenty of intimate human dramas concerning the bevy of big name actors attached to the project.
Where the film succeeds is in following the health officials as they attempt to identify a patient zero, understand this new virus, and develop a vaccine. It’s a fascinating look into the challenges real-life personnel must face in a world so dependent on speedy global travel, which is great for business but bad for any reasonable chance to quarantine diseases.
However, in attempting to cover much, much, much, MUCH more ground, Soderbergh leaves far too many plot threads dangling in the end. The focus is split into three or four different main sections, depending on how you look at it. There’s Matt Damon’s quest to keep himself and his daughter locked safely away in their home. There’s the entire CDC gang trying to develop a vaccine while also taking time to develop a few personal subplots. There’s Cotillard’s sojourn to Hong Kong to identify the origin of the virus that takes quite a turn, only to be dropped entirely until near the end. And there’s Jude Law blogging his way into notoriety, foregoing journalistic integrity for vanity and greed.
To adequately examine all of these different aspects, this would normally require a mini-series. However, using 1 hour and 45 minutes, Soderbergh either needed to decide that one or more of the main plots needed to be trimmed or excised completely, or he needed to figure out some better way to succinctly get from A to B. In particular, the Matt Damon storyline seemed far too prominent in the scope of things but considering the working relationship between director and actor, this doesn’t come as much surprise. There are attempts to fast-forward the timeline via some electronic-music laden montages but more often than not, it felt gimmicky rather than organic.
All of the performances are quite good. This actually made things a bit more problematic when it came to unresolved plot points, as characters were memorable enough that it would have been nice to see more things wrapped up. While ambiguity often makes for more interesting post-film discussion, there’s a world of difference between the opportunity to fill in the gaps for one’s self and dropped storylines. This unfortunately felt far more like the latter.
For all of the bashing, the majority of elements in Contagion are done well and it’s a topic well worth exploring in today’s global marketplace. Sadly, an inconsequential attempt to twist the story in the final minutes, a heartwarming but seemingly forced scene near the end, and far too many plot points within the script keep this from reaching its potential. But if you think it’ll be fun to make yourself paranoid about who and what you touch, go ahead and give the film a shot.
It’s far easier to recommend something like The Andromeda Strain (1971 only) or Outbreak – heck, there’s even a virological component to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and that film has the bonus element of chimpanzees – but they’re your dollars. Spend them wisely.
Contagion hits theaters on September 9, 2011 and is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.
More on Contagion:
–Info and cast list