* * * (out of five) Contagion. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh.
Jude Law is worse than the plague in Contagion.
With all the bad news going around lately, anybody can be excused for lacking appetite for yet another apocalyptic disaster movie. Hollywood has killed the world so many times already, with zombies and aliens and demons and cyborgs and vampires and global warming and nukes, that the whole thing seems rather old hat. A viral epidemic than kills only a few hundred million people, like in Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion? Please get back to us when you’ve got something serious!
Having finally gotten around to seeing Contagion, though, I can report that even modest mishaps can have their compensations. For this film resembles Soderbergh’s own Traffic (2000) more than a conventional disaster movie—that is, a sweeping drama featuring many big-name actors in tiny roles, each filling in a piece of a picture that comes out larger than the sum of its parts. This time we have Matt Damon as a father crazed with worry for his (as yet) uninfected daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and Lawrence Fishburne as a government bureaucrat crazed with worry for his infected co-worker (Kate Winslet), and Jude Law (terrific here) as a blogger-huckster who profits directly from spreading disinformation about the virus that’s eating the world. We also have Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization investigator who is abducted by the Chinese, and Jennifer Ehle as the CDC scientist willing to do anything to stop the plague, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the unfortunate “Patient Zero”.
With the exception of Damon, whose portrait of a man whose world has fallen apart is the heart of the story, none of these performances add up to more than ten minutes of screen time. Nor is much of this particularly scary—at least not in a visceral, “flesh-eating virus” sense.Instead, Soderbergh aims for, and gets, disquieting drama that builds in tiny, deadly increments.
A less perceptive script, for instance, would start to round things down when the vaccine is finally discovered. This is not a spoiler here, though, because as Scott Z. Burn’s screenplay shows, the invention of the vaccine is only the beginning of the end, and a very tentative beginning at that. And indeed, Soderbergh may have pioneered something here that adds up to a truly weird creature: a “pandemic procedural”. Don’t know what do when viral hybridization jumps your R-nought from 2 to 4? Can’t find your index patient? Wondering how to handle the press when setting up social distancing? Contagion is your education.
As Burns’ screenplay notes, respect for the probability of the next global plague has been undermined by too many false alarms—too many bird flus and H1N1’s that leave behind more hysterical headlines than corpses. What these “shoes that didn’t drop” actually suggest, however, is that fast as viruses can mutate and spread, they just can’t compete with the spread of information that helps us keep ahead of them. It has been said that earthquakes don’t kill people—houses falling down in earthquakes kill people. Similarly, it’s not the bugs that make pandemics, but ignorance. In this sense, the idea that some super-virus can wipe out billions of people in the age of the internet may be as fanciful as invading cyborgs from the Moon.
Meanwhile, we can give thanks for Contagion, a movie that reminds us that there’s still power in the merely cataclysmic.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro