Contagion (2011)

27 October 2011

There are a lot of interesting elements to Contagion, but as a film about the communal, societal and finally global dangers of viral contamination, it was doubly interesting to see it in a pretty packed multiplex theatre with fellow audience members coughing, sneezing, picking their noses (trust me, I saw), and so on, things to which my attention was inevitably drawn due to the film’s own commentary on them; indeed, at one point, one character – concerned about the spread of germs – tells another to stop touching his face so much, something I myself was doing as he was told it.

Contagion is doubly interesting in this context, then, but for better or worse, it might also be more interesting. Even having to endure a gaggle of young girls laughing hysterically during one scene, a herd of younger lads talking during several others and the middle-aged couple tentatively rustling their way through a Kit Kat Chunky each – as if doing so in such a manner somehow doesn’t make it even more annoying – gave the film a strange sense of immediacy. Unlike last week’s experience of Drive – which I caught at the local independent, where the film is meant to be more sacred, if you like – the cacophonous ambience of this multiplex screening kind of cancelled itself out and added irony to on-screen proceedings.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh – whose Che Part Two (2008) made my Top 100Contagion is a restrained ensemble piece starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburn, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle and more, as various characters of differing occupations and positions (domestic, medical, scientific, governmental; the informed and the uninformed) dealing with an unprecedented and highly contagious deadly virus as it reaches epidemic proportions across the globe in a matter of days.

Like Che Part Two, this film unfolds in a fragmented manner, with minimal exposition and ellipses explained by the diary-like headings that tell us how many days we’re into the outbreak. But if Che was stubbornly restrained, Contagion doesn’t seem restrained enough, as if its director was concerned that the hypothetical premise of the story needed some kind of conventional aesthetic in order to avoid alienating its audience. As Winslet’s character laments early on, the masses will veer clear of the sea after seeing a shark film, but when it comes to public health warnings…

This is Soderbergh playing at a marketable product once again (it’s been given a 12A certificate) whilst stretching his more independent sensibilities: the relative lack of exposition, as already noted, but also the avoidance of sensationalism and any visual sense of omnipotence, such as those birdseye shots roaming over cities that directors seem keen on these days. While some plot strands are shot in a particularly blue hue, this isn’t as colour-coded as Soderbergh’s other panoramic film, Traffic (2000), and on the whole it isn’t as compositionally challenging as the Che films.

You do, however, despite the moderate BBFC rating, get some deadpan shots – particularly early on – of victims to the virus, their lifeless eyes indicating the rapidity with which their bodies have degenerated into nothing. One scene sees doctors inspecting a victim’s brain, peeling back her scalp so that we can see the inner texture of the flesh. The resulting tone is a clinical one.

As the film progresses and we become more familiarised with the key characters – some of whom, to scriptwriter Scott Z. Burns’s credit, are killed off just as they’re becoming interesting – Soderbergh allows himself more conventional indulgences, with an increase in a percussive, up-tempo electronic soundtrack and greater personal concerns on the protagonists’ parts.

Paradoxically, in utilising such conventions, the film draws our attention to just how casually its characters are painted in the first place. This could go either way: it could be mature and confident, or it could be lazy and uncommitted. As it is, the more interesting ideas presented in Contagion point toward corporate-level delays in vaccination to aid long-term profits, as well as governmental inadequacy and corruption; neither of these are fully interrogated.

The presence of Jude Law, meanwhile, as some hypocritical blogger (“prophet/profit”, reads one slogan of him) seems set up to be a perfunctory sideswipe to the amateurishness of such journalists (blogging is likened at one point to “graffiti with punctuation”), and not much finally comes of it. On top of that, Law himself is somewhat annoying, having been given creative license to adorn his CV with an Australian accent that doesn’t sound too far removed from his familiar posh cockney to seem worthwhile.

Though effective in the way his camera lingers on the surfaces involuntarily touched on a daily basis, Soderbergh struggles to make anything lasting of his material. As if to make a comment on the transience with which our media-saturated society first sensationalises this or that pandemic before forgetting about it and moving on, the film itself arrives at its resolution by way of petering out toward a dramatic whimper, which risks undercutting its own unnerving intentions with mild satire.