Savant goes back five years to praise Steven Soderbergh’s superb pandemic thriller, the one that warns us to never, ever shake hands with a gourmet chef. Don’t worry, only between 25 and 40 million people die… in the first year. Now go wash your hands.
Warner Home Video
2011 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 106 min. / Street Date January 3, 2013
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotilliard, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Anna Jacoby-Herron, Demetri Martin .
Cinematography Peter Andrews (Steven Soderbergh)
Film Editor Stephen Mirrone
Original Music Cliff Martinez
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Produced by Gregory Jacobs, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
Directed by Stephen Soderbergh
This is something of a grudge review for Savant. Whenever I’m completely exhausted and want to relax I’ll pluck a favorite off the shelf and do what everybody else does, settle in with a total comfort movie. Last night I thought I’d watch a few minutes of Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion, and as often happens, I ended up seeing the whole thing again, as if I hadn’t already seen it six or seven times. This time I looked up online reviews, and ran into a couple of web snarks taking lame potshots at Soderbergh, and (apparently) calling out his movie for not being an action-filled thrill ride. This fine picture held the theatrical audience I saw it with in rapt attention, and they applauded at the end. I felt compelled to enumerate its many graces. So here goes.
While studying for a commentary on The Satan Bug, I showed two biologists that techno-thriller as well as Contagion. Their observations about the relative realism of Soderbergh’s movie impressed me. Contagion can’t help but take the form of a science fiction film as defined by Susan Sontag in her “The Imagination of Disaster” essay — even if we don’t admit it, we like to see movies about catastrophes. Seeing people threatened on a vast scale is unbreakable entertainment, whether the menace is a fantasy monster or something terrifyingly plausible. Movies about plagues and diseases have usually cheated pretty horribly; the example I always give is Outbreak, where a vaccine for a deadly virus not only gets victims up on their feet in no time at all, but has healed all the normally irreparable organ and tissue damage inflicted on them.
Contagion’s sci-fi monster is MEV-1, a virus that kills in just a matter of a day or so after contact. The original screenplay is by Scott Z. Burns, with whom Steven Soderbergh had just made The Informant!, another show that makes a mind-boggling true story both comprehensible and entertaining. Contagion juggles its six star characterizations so deftly that we don’t think of the show as either an ensemble piece or a series of stunt casting decisions. It’s a compelling narrative, plain and simple. The scary virus is so powerful that the actors slip right into place in situations that every one of us can identify with. Do you have a sniffle today? A headache? Washed your hands yet today? How do you know you haven’t caught something BIG?
The premise of Contagion makes perfect sense in a world where people zip across the globe like they used to go to the next town. Neither mass hygiene nor international heath planning have caught up with a global overcrowding situation that threatens us with a new public health problem on a daily basis. A freak mutation of a virus in Hong Kong is on three continents ten hours after first contact, and two days later the U.S. government, the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are struggling to get a handle on it. A married executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) dies hours after deplaning from Hong Kong; she has no way of knowing that she’s handed off a death sentence to several people, including her own son. As the sickness spreads, CDC agent (Kate Winslet) is dispatched to Minnesota to figure out the source of the infection. She runs up against local obstructionism and the sheer logistics of trying to find everyone the woman might have contacted. The agent’s boss in Atlanta (Laurence Fishburne) must coordinate research efforts. An independent expert (Elliott Gould) defies an order to burn his samples and pushes forth to isolate the virus, while the head researcher in Atlanta (Jennifer Ehle) has to figure out how to get a vaccine program going as soon as possible. Meanwhile, much of the world literally comes to halt, with uninfected people going to extremes to isolate themselves.
Exacerbating the disaster is a counterproductive disinformation campaign on the Internet. In an atmosphere of fear, conspiracy theories have credibility. A disaffected would-be journalist (Jude Law) convinces millions that the CDC is actively preventing a cure, which he identifies as an herb called Forsythia. While this web blogger negotiates with a hedge fund manager to monetize his ‘special’ information, the CDC staggers under its own problems — its director has leaked privileged information that causes a mass panic in Chicago. Finally, a World Health Organization worker in Hong Kong (Marion Cotilliard) is taken prisoner by a colleague. His small village is hit by the virus, and knowing full well that they will have to wait a long time in line for the promised vaccine, he ransoms her for access to the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. With the worldwide death toll reaching thirty million, the head CDC researcher decides to save time and test a vaccine on herself, with the idea that, if she’s lucky, she might prevent millions of additional deaths.
Soderbergh and Scott Burns fashion a fast-moving, absolutely riveting narrative that communicates its points with clarity yet allows us to connect some of the dots for ourselves. At first Contagion feels like a public service message gone insane — shots linger on smudges on doors or other ways that the germs are being transmitted. Gwynneth Paltrow is shown at a party at a Hong Kong restaurant and casino, and her casual, inoffensive contact with other people seals their deaths as if she were made of poison. It all feels very personal when the virus hits an upscale American neighborhood, not some slum. Beautiful women, young adults and cute kids die horrible deaths.
Contagion is grim and scary, but it has no scenes of gratuitous shock. The one graphic moment, the sight of a woman’s scalp being folded over her face during an autopsy, stands in to remind us that the wrong illness can turn any of us into an inert lab specimen in a matter of hours. When they open her skull we don’t see what they see, but it Is implied that most of her brain has been consumed. We foolish science fiction fans easily forget that doctors face scarier monsters than the movies can imagine on a daily basis.
The medical details are simplified somewhat. The virus is made perhaps a little too virulent to be wholly credible, but given that creative license Contagion hasn’t been criticized for exaggerating anything. All the stories stay on a personal level. Nothing is hyped. The sudden widower played by Matt Damon must keep his teenage daughter away from contact with everybody, even the boy next door, for fear of contamination. All of Soderbergh’s characters react like humans, not sci-fi heroes. The experience of losing his wife and young son is so terrifying that the husband mentally rejects the reality of it for a moment. But he doesn’t burst out in tears and histrionics. Critics complaining that Matt Damon’s reaction is too subdued don’t know what they’re talking about.
Soderbergh is also to be commended for presenting a convincing worldwide catastrophe without playing the lets-be-spectacular game. He shows just enough large-scale events — riots at a food distribution held by the army, looting at a pharmacy trying to ration supplies — to keep our doubts at bay. Classic sci-fi disaster pictures had to break through the audience’s complacency barrier, which greeted most outlandish events with skepticism. But the notion that our American land of plenty is immune to uncivilized behavior died years ago in racial insurrections and gas shortage panics. All Soderbergh need show us are the edges of chaos to make us believe that Damon’s survivor is better off hunkered down in his house, and on the defensive. Heck, I live in a big city. Any kind of disturbance can cause pandemonium for some people, and something crazy happens every day.
Contagion is also free of easy cynicism. Compared to what happens in most mass panic movies, Soderbergh and Burns’ America holds together fairly well. Matt Damon’s neighborhood doesn’t even lose electrical power. There is crime, but no roaming gangs of cannibals. Being connected has pluses and minuses. The cable news brings needed information, and the Internet breeds opportunists like Jude Law’s faux-journalist. The trash isn’t being picked up, but the center does hold. Although it doesn’t feel like it, we do see only what happens in one community. I personally live a stone’s throw from one of the ‘classy’ neighborhoods in my area. Our power almost never goes out, and when it does the interruption rarely lasts more than a couple of hours. I’m not so certain that my city has a fair distribution of civic services, even under normal conditions.
Contagion encompasses several thriller-type subplots with a global perspective. But the script avoids over-hyped scenes that would distract from the big picture, like a rescue of a busload of children, or having somebody take part in a desperate gunfight. Leave that to the zombie movies. Matt Damon’s pointedly unglamorous storyline is instead an account of barricading in and weathering the storm. When Marion Cotilliard looks into the eyes of the children of a Chinese village, we’re encouraged to take the long view: what’s the best for these kids, for all kids? What decisions will do the most good? The film’s sweetest romance is one that doesn’t happen, that isn’t really a romance. A helper for Kate Winslet’s character is a big, friendly guy. He clearly has a crush on her, while she isn’t interested on any level. He remains faithful to her to the end, refusing to let circumstances bulldoze casual human relationships. Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns maintain sensitivity toward their characters. The ‘human touches’ in this show make a big difference.
One thing handled particularly well is an extramarital affair that’s discovered when disaster hits. Movies under the old Production Code routinely pretended that destiny punishes morally questionable behavior. In the morally noxious The Towering Inferno a pair of illicit lovers die horrible deaths in a burning building, and the implication is that the fire is direct, deserved retribution from God. Contagion thankfully keeps the issue in perspective: “She made her mistakes, but she loved you.” Like the menace in one of Susan Sontag’s imaginative disaster movies, the deaths caused by MEV-1 are a scary game of random bad luck, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re living in the sci-fi world predicted by ‘fifties monster movies, except the monsters aren’t giant beasts.
Not imposing moral judgments means that deplorable behavior is often not punished. Jude Law’s Forsythia guru is a monstrous egotist putting his personal importance ahead of all other considerations. But he also believes in what he’s doing. The security agent who condemns him (but cannot suppress him) is the same watchdog charged with the responsibility of punishing the CDC official played by Laurence Fishburne. We don’t think Fishburne has done anything that bad, but he did make a serious mistake in judgment.
In the end Contagion gives us the desired disaster scenario, in which we ask ourselves if WE would be an early casualty, or if we’d muster the good sense and resources to survive. It also delivers a positive message about science and medicine, which in our country at least is presently under a lot of pressure. If not stymied by reactionary and religious ignorance, our committed men and women of science and medicine are achieving life-saving miracles. One of the film’s nicest images shows Jennifer Ehle performing some careful function in a clean room where (I think) the vaccines are being manufactured. She’s wearing a bulky, ridiculous-looking red & white plastic suit, inflated with air that she breathes through various tubes. Ms. Ehle has a satisfied smile on her face, knowing that all this technological apparatus is doing GOOD, that she is doing good. Science is not evil, and higher learning and academic excellence are not anti-American. I hope that our country can get back to such sane values again.
The Warner Home Video Blu-ray of Contagion has been out for four years; the 2012 release included a DVD but the later copy I have does not. The transfer is immaculate, a good match for what I saw at the Directors’ Guild in the fall of 2011. The show is one of Stephen Soderbergh’s digital features, which is interesting because it was also blown up to IMAX for some venues. I know film and video experts that aren’t impressed with the Red One camera system, but this movie and Soderbergh’s Che look fine to me.
The only extra is an animated public service message, delivered in an amusing but too-fast style, that gives advice as to what we can do to prepare should a pandemic come along. Soderbergh remains one of our most creative directors. For the last 25 years he’s tried all kinds of interesting projects, not all of which have been great — his remake of Solaris, for instance. But I lose patience with reviewers that expect him to chase the commercial brass ring with the younger Turks, or that slam his experiments with format or style. He’s now into cable TV series, and doing quite well.
If you missed Contagion, it’s really worth a look-see. Blu-rays online are not expensive. The movie’s excellent original TV spots can be seen at The Film Stage Page : “Remain Calm!”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Excellent English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Supplements: Public service short subject.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Mandarin.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson