Getting it exactly wrong
Soderbergh’s Contagion is an odd compromise that will please many a little bit but few very much. Its construction shows a strange inconsistency. As Abigail Zuger M.D. explains in a New York Times article about this movie’s scientific underpinnings, Soderbergh and Co. worked exhaustively to assemble accurate information about epidemics of viruses and show a lot of things that have actually happened with SARS, swine flu, AIDS, and so forth. But then, by concocting a hybrid disease that doesn’t exist and having it spread more rapidly than any epidemic in history, they lose the sense of reality, the awareness of how epidemics actually work, that they might otherwise have created. Furthermore, the writing doesn’t engage us deeply enough with characters and events to make us care about them. A friend who sees a lot of movies called this “an effort at a high-class virus flick.” “Hmm,” was her only comment. She was hinting at the presence of an oxymoron.
Nonetheless, the film really sings in its early scenes. As they unreel, we are still full of expectation and apprehension. The camera moves around rapidly among a series of people in the Far East and the U.S. who come in contact with the first person to spread a mysterious disease internationally. This would be Gwyneth Paltrow, a party-loving traveling lady with a sex buddy in Chicago and a plodding, dutiful husband in Minnesota (Matt Damon). It’s both creepy and neat to see how the camera spotlights, one by one, all the infected people being touched and touching as the virus is picked up and delivered by new victims. Returning from Hong Kong with what she thinks is a bad case of jet lag, Gwyneth foams at the mouth on the kitchen floor back in Minneapolis and flatlines shortly thereafter in a nearby hospital. Damon loses Gwyneth in Intensive Care and then returns home to find his young son also already dead in bed. His daughter remains alive and after a period of quarantine and proving himself to be naturally immune, he keeps the girl at home in “prison,” as she calls it in a text message to her high school sweetheart, waiting till a vaccine comes. These quarantine sequences make one think wistfully of the cleverer and more intense and resonant 28 Weeks Later.
Throughtout those early scenes, jumping from country to country among victims and overhearing the experts tracking the first strikes, Contagion retains some of the thrill level of of Soderbergh’s version of the six-part British drug miniseries Traffik,which moved between Pakistani growers and manufacturers, German dealers, and British users in a compulsive manner, never losing intensity in shifting between the languages and characters of those three highly distinct cultural milieus. Soderbergh downgraded the multicultural level to just the US and Mexico, but managed to keep the basic structure and energy level very well. This new movie muddles the story lines too much. It gives us obvious markers — Day 2, Day 13; London, population so-and-so. It also gives us datelines — Thanksgiving, Christmas, months that follow. But the way characters and locations are distinguished isn’t as strong and the plotline organization isn’t as successful as in the earlier film. We move from Damon and Paltrow to a drug organization honcho, Lawrence Fishbourne. Then we follow Kate Winslet as a tireless epidemiologist searching down cases out in the field, the actress’ earnest quality briefly exploited. Marion Cotillard is even more wasted in the colorless role of another CDC person kidnapped to require preference on a vaccine for the citizens of a Chinese village. These plot lines just sort of fizzle out.
As time goes on there are too many disparate strands. There are still other researchers, including Elliot Gould. One of them, Jennifer Ehle, chooses to inject herself, as James Franco injects John Lithgow in the new Planet of the Apes, bypassing legal restrictions to find a vaccine. Another element: Fishbourne gets a loved one out of Chicago before general warnings have been authorized. A big issue is panic. As that spreads, it becomes more dangerous than the disease. There’s also Jude Law as a crude and unscrupulous Australian blogger. This movie doesn’t much like the Internet, seeing it as a purveyor of false rumor. Fishbourne describe blogs as “just graffiti with punctuation.” Law purveys a hateful sensationalism and exploits a fake Wisteria cure to millions. Many millions of deaths are predicted, and we see disease centers, like tidier versions of Katrina, and drugstore riots, one over Law’s quack remedy.
We see streets bestrewn with discarded clothes — a low budget way of exhibiting chaos at work. We hear about millions dead, the president going into hiding, congressmen learning how to do their work online. The blogger accuses Fishbourne of delaying research procedures so he can make deals with Big Pharma to profit from vaccines. We see caged monkeys used for a succession of vaccine trials. We hear of the virus mutating. We see flashbacks to Paltrow partying and touching stuff — the scariest thing in a movie that is extremely stingy with gross-out images.
We do see bats excreting the virus and infecting pigs with it. The movie virus is a Hollywood mix of two real ones, a hellish brain virus and influenza. People cough and feel ill and their brains rot, which seems an oddish combination even if you don’t know it’s not a real one. But it’s logical in movie terms, because flu is our most common image of people getting sick, while the actual bat brain virus is one of the most virulent known today.
The social fabric disintegrates globally, as Dr. Zuger notes, because the disease, “MEV-1” multiplies further and faster than any epidemic ever has. But unlike the more effective Children of Men, our being notified of these effects fails either to create the sense of a whole new world or to evoke moments of philosophical reflection. This isn’t a sci-fi film but a pseudo-science film.Contagion ends feebly, starting out hopefully, making us feel effectively icky and uneasy about catching things at first, and then winding up feeling remarkably unmoved. “MEV-1” kills 25 million people before it’s done, yet we feel little sense of tragedy.
Contagion seems like a very American film. Soderbergh might have followed Dr. Zuger’s advice that espidemics move in a slow and boring manner and whipped up something much subtler and creepier. But instead he did what Ameriacans do: he got all excited and got the facts wrong. You wonder if accurate information about an epidemic might not have made an even better human story. Or, failing that, why not go for a full-on apocalyptic fantasy as Children of Men so effectively did?
When he is good Soderbergh is very, very good, but when he isn’t — uh-uh. He has spoken lately of retiring from filmmaking. Hmm.
DIRECTOR: STEVEN SODERBERGH
STARS: MATT DAMON, KATE WINSLET, JUDE LAW, GWYNETH PALTROW
RUNTIME: 106 MINUTES