Contagion is a film to enjoy in the moment and forget once it's finished. While it portends to be a film about 'ideas', the only thing to savour is its technical acuity, which makes it effectively nothing more than an action film.
Contagion (2011)) dir. Steven Soderbergh Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard
By Alan Bacchus
The central idea here is the relation of the spread of a deadly SARS-like or H1N1 virus to the unruly panic of our human response. It starts well, hopping around the world showing how Gwenyth Paltrow spread the virus from Hong Kong to Chicago to Tokyo and other places around the world. When people start dying, CDC (Center for Disease Control) officials, FEMA and other organizations start tracking the virus and formulating a cure.
The quick pace and ticking clock urgency, as well as a lot of scientific terms and techno-speak, create a sense of realism for this intense thriller. Unfortunately, once the metaphor to the spread of panic and fear at the human level clicks in, the sense of realism is lost. Soderbergh never devolves to the level of ham-fisted moral ironies of say Edward Zwick's The Siege or even a number of Stephen King stories, but it's still a familiar and obvious lesson. Ordinary citizens so quickly reverting to looting and other primal, uncivilized survival 'instincts' is simply not believable and rings as false.
The globetrotting set-up playing out the drama is teasing, but the broad scope eventually undermines the human drama, as we don't spend enough time with anybody to truly care about them on an emotional level. Soderbergh would have done better if he just stuck with the procedural aspects of the virus containment. And curiously, the usually watchable Matt Damon is the weakest link with a dull performance that is falsely understated. It's as if Soderbergh didn't want to commit to shooting a character film, thus leaving us hopelessly in between two different films – or it needed to be three hours long to fully realize his intended film.
Looking back, the best moments in the film are the fabulous montage sequences driven by the pulsing electronic score by the underused and underappreciated Cliff Martinez (Traffic). In fact, this would likely be abysmal and unwatchable if not for Martinez. Of course, this demonstrates Steven Soderbergh's directorial inspiration to present this film with an insignificant aesthetic shift away from the regular paint-by-numbers dreck.
The technical precision is truly magnificent. His cinematography, once again shot by himself under his pseudonym, Peter Andrews, is crisp and clinical. The bold placement of saturated colours results in them popping out of the frame as startling as the best 3D imagery. And once again, the music of Cliff Martinez complements the visual design with such electro-magnificence it singlehandedly keeps us going through the overly ambitious, under-executed socio-political allegories.