By Richard von Busack
Contagion is the return of the compass-spinning, star-studded spectacular, done digitally on a tight budget with lots of interiors and city park scenes. Its treatment of a lethal pandemic called “MEV1” is nothing but convincing. But busy as it is, it never really breaks a sweat.
Steven Soderbergh, working with the fine screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) juggles a lot of material and inevitably leaves open end or two (one character walks off, and we can only guess where). Yet it’s a taut, existentialist view of a killer flu rampaging the world, as a few scientists and government officials try to keep order.
Briefly, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the Patient Zero of the American side of the epidemic, who brings the disease with her from a business trip to Hong Kong to her home in Minneapolis. It’s suspected that her marital extra-curricular activities may have had something to do with her exposure.
She doesn’t last long, and her spouse (Matt Damon) has to cope with his grief. Damon plays it uninflected and boxed in, with glimpses of his turmoil, usually through nervous repetition of sentences (“I’m happy about that. I’m happy about that.”)
It’s part of this film’s sometimes-chilly efficiency that it doesn’t stop for a wallow in sadness. Laurence Fishburne, gotten heavy and bearish now, is a CDC official sending out a new hire (Kate Winslet, excellent) to investigate the Minnesota front.
Meanwhile a military officer from the Department of Homeland Security steps in, in the form of the reliable Bryan Cranston. Jennifer Ehle and Elliott Gould are the scientists on either coast trying to break down the virus and find a cure…which is not easy, because it kills its host tissue in the lab culture. Marion Cotillard is a scientist who gets tangled in Chinese politics. And Jude Law, with a prosthetic crooked front tooth, is a San Francisco blogger for “TruthSerumNow.Com” who lets himself become the mouthpiece for quacks.
Some will find Contagion depressing. It seemed to me startlingly optimistic in both the relative efficiency of government reaction and in the mildness of human conduct after people start dying by the millions. (For instance, a teenager kept in quarantine by her father for half a year still makes her bed as neatly as if it were a display in a department store.)
Everything about it is mature and believably weary. The science in it seems at least as good as the New Yorker articles warning us that we’re not as plague-proof as we think. The semi-explained double-talk of the doctors insists that we’re smart enough to get up to speed. It gets little details right: the proper visual angle on the way you’d see the dome of the San Francisco City Hall from the FBI office on Golden Gate, for example.
The visuals, as seen in digital projection, are more proof Soderbergh uses the medium as well as anyone. Digital still has its many limits: in the first shot, Paltrow’s yellow hair breaks up like sticks of hay in the glare of harsh fluorescent light behind her. (Paltrow deserves credit: she’s the brave centerpiece in Contagion’s one genuine shocker.)
This kind of photography has made tremendous advances in the past decade, and yet it’s still basically a terrific medium for making actors look sick, yellowish, or flushed to a ruby grapefruit shade with fever. So it’s appropriate here, anyway. The intricately detailed skyscapes (exteriors, and there are few of them) can look sharper in digital than in color-corrected film, with the unearthly clarity of post-Lasik surgery. The razor-like realism of the views give this story extra grounding.
Contagion doesn’t send you home weeping—it rouses up nothing more than an abstract pity even when one main character dies. And funny Contagion isn’t. Gould brings on one big laugh: the doctor slowly getting appalled as he watches a variety of different disease vectors on display at a Bayview coffee shop.
Ehle herself is a vision of mercy in this sometimes bleak film (the most sensual image in the film is her bare thigh, just before she’s about to drive a needle into it). And as perhaps the bravest character, she gets to deliver the best advice about paying attention to the threat of pandemics: “A plastic shark in a movie is enough to scare them out of the water, but the warnings on the side of a cigarette package…”
In the end Soderbergh shows the same concerns in Sex Lies and Videotapes, a post-AIDS view of the world as a place where no one can be too careful. Fishburne’s comment “Our best defense has been social distancing…” sums up the price of safety.
What’s most refreshing is this: Disaster films (and Contagion is in that category) usually find society is to blame for what hits it.
The more evangelical the population gets, the more popular this millennial view becomes.
There’s a crowd that blames America first for where the hurricanes make landfall, after all...(and some of this crowd occasionally runs for president.)
Neither booze nor spirituality is part of the picture of how the survivors cope here. Contagion takes a larger, more remote view: a scientist’s view of happenstance, of viral opportunity striking. It’s thus an engrossing and frightening film.