Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Big Review: Contagion

Every fall, a movie comes out that throws everyone into a tizzy with its name cast and high-profile director. It seems destined for a gaggle of awards. Then it's released and...pfft!

Here's the front-runner for 2011's unique distinction.

This review--complete with 9/11 interpretation and my take on Steven Soderbergh's stoic approach--previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Director Steven Soderbergh has always displayed a coolness that borders on emotional disconnect. You don't see teary speeches or hug-filled reunions. His box office triumphs (Erin Brockovich, the Ocean's trilogy) feature characters who can't afford to let their guard down. King of the Hill might be the most intense coming-of-age story I've ever seen. Traffic could have made a billion dollars and sold a zillion t-shirts if he chose to glamorize drug dealing with violence and big personalities.

Soderbergh didn't. All he got was an Academy Award for best director.

His refusal to talk down to his audience while skipping through genres, even if it costs him, is why I am an admirer. But it makes Soderbergh an odd choice to direct Contagion, the star-studded virus-runs-amok drama. A good poker face is not scary. The film never grabs you by the shoulders and gives you an old-fashioned fright. You can watch it with your eyes wide open—unless you find stellar ensemble work and directorial polish bone chilling.

The origins of the viral horror are benign. Executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), coughing and pale, prepares to board her flight home after a business trip to Hong Kong. The same conditions plague a fashion model in London, a Tokyo businessman, and, logically, a Hong Kong waiter. Everyone looks like they have the flu. Emhoff returns home to Minneapolis, where a few days later she collapses on the kitchen floor, frothing at the mouth and lapsing into seizures. The hospital's doctor can't explain her death, but the coroner's reaction during the autopsy says it all: "Call everyone."

Soon, a no-nonsense investigator (Kate Winslet) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travels to Minnesota. A World Health Organization official (Marion Cotillard) heads to the Hong Kong casino where Emhoff gambled and dined. As the ladies follow leads, attempts to vaccinate the virus prove exceedingly difficult. It's a model of biological perfection, fitting into cells "like a key into a lock." People keep dying, so much so that body bags run out.

In the ensuing weeks, things fall apart. Homeland Security becomes interested. A popular, truth-telling blogger (Jude Law) gets his priorities mixed up. Beth's widowed husband (Matt Damon) becomes really overprotective of his only daughter. Throughout, Soderbergh handles the material with his usual quiet confidence. The proof is in the cinematography: Winslet opens her hotel window to see a caravan of military vehicles driving down an empty street on a miserable gray morning. The beleaguered CDC deputy director (Laurence Fishburne) sits in a cafeteria, surrounded by empty chairs, overwhelmed by a problem he can't solve.

Soderbergh's approach only takes him so far. His quiet confidence turns into politeness. Grave red lettering pops up to remind us of the number of days that have passed in this misery. Everyone is clearly working against the clock, but the tension never explodes. The movie proceeds as one long anticlimax. Major plot developments get treated with little fuss as Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns make their points about leadership (the military calls the shots; the president is nowhere to be found), bureaucratic red tape, and the common good of people. These messages are fine, but they're placed too high on the priority list. The movie is about an unstoppable virus killing millions of helpless people. Shouldn't we feel a little bit scared? Is it weird not to feel any connection to characters? (Burns and Soderbergh address this shortcoming by having Damon turn into a less hirsute version of Viggo Mortensen's character from The Road, a distracting move in an otherwise journalistic-style narrative.) Why does the movie feel respectful and orderly, like something The Learning Channel would produce?

An argument could be made that this kind of restraint is appropriate for a movie released two days before the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. I don't buy that. The Dark Knight perfectly captured the random terror that comes when a psychopath gains power over a major city. V for Vendetta, released in the middle of George W. Bush's second term, explored the horror of an overprotective government. And there was The Road, Team America World Police, and more.

One of the great artistic triumphs post-September 11th is that filmmakers have used the fear of a world run amok in a creative, non-exploitive way. Movies have helped us explore the uncertainty of that day and ever after. By holding back his own emotions, whatever they might be, Soderbergh has offered a somewhat entertaining, well-acted cop out. [PG-13]

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