Contagion (2013) – Directed by Steven Soderbergh – Starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Chin Han, and Elliott Gould.
Why did Steven Soderbergh make this movie?
With most movies, you can spot the scene or scenes that must have given the director cinematic wood the moment he or she read the script. It might not be the only reason they’re directing a given movie, but when I watch Avengers, I think Whedon must have loved coming to the set on days when the actors were slinging dialogue much more than when they were slinging hammers and shields. Films have signature scenes and those signature scenes become the director’s signature scenes. Go ahead. Think about any film and there’s a scene or two that almost always lingers in the memory.
The same can be said for Soderbergh movies, too. When I think of The Limey, I think of Terrance Stamp in the car with the city behind him. When I think of Haywire, I think of Gina Carrano in a hat. When I think of Traffic, I think of Michael Douglas finding his daughter. When I watch a Soderbergh movie, it’s usually these small, quiet moments where I go, “Yeah, that’s why he’s doing this movie.” It’s an image of a character that I can see him building his entire movie around.
That moment never happens in CONTAGION. There are a few moments near the end of the movie where the movie soars out of its restrained bookishness to offer something of a pulse, but if the moments that made Soderbergh want to direct this movie are all at the end of the film – Matt Damon putting on a prom in his house for his daughter, Laurence Fishburne giving the janitor’s kid his shot of vaccine, and Marion Cotillard running back to her kidnappers – that’s the equivalent of inviting people over and making them sit through a big dinner just to serve them your grandma’s best apple pie.
The bulk of this film is cold and clinical. In format, it reminds me of HBO’s two decade-old And the Band Played On, which employed lots of famous people in small roles to detail the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but it has none of that movie’s passion.
CONTAGION plays like Steven Soderbergh set out to make a zombie movie without focusing on all those pesky, noisy, uncivilized zombies. How do we survive the zombie apocalypse? According to Soderbergh, it’s by acting rationally and relying on smart people to have just the right mix of brains and compassion to save the world. But, whatever you do, don’t panic and don’t touch anything. Just sit at home and let the rational people do all the thinking.
I’ve noted in the past that Soderbergh is in the body obsession phase of his career, and CONTAGION is the dark side of that. Instead of glorifying Carrano or Channing Tatum’s bodies, Soderbergh’s message in CONTAGION is that everyone is dirty and bodies are disgusting. The fictional disease of CONTAGION is Meningoencephalitis (thanks, Wikipedia!) Virus One (MEV-1), which comes on like a mega-flu and gives you seizures. What’s telling about the disease that Soderbergh chose is that it matures ridiculously quick, spreads through touching, and there’s no cure. It’s a disease that’s designed to create as much panic as possible, so the “zombies” in Soderbergh’s world have the decency to die, but because of how they go from normal to dead in a matter of days, the uninfected population serves as the post-apocalyptic hoard.
Clinical is the word I kept coming back to when watching CONTAGION. Soderbergh’s film isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a flat one that’s more comfortable in laboratories and offices than it is in the real world. The film talks about disease as dispassionately as possible and while that’s exactly how you would want officials to act when something like this happens, it doesn’t make for the most exciting film.
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is Patient Zero. Work sends her to Macau, where she has a good time but shakes hands with a chef who passes the disease from the infected pig he’s working on to her, and then she unknowingly starts the spread the disease through the world by simply making contact with people at the casino where said good time/infection is taking place. She dies, her son dies, but her husband Mitch (Damon) does not die because he’s made of magic. Mitch offers up himself to the Centers for Disease Control so they can create a cure, but the scientists are all, “That takes way too long. We’ll just keep fumbling along in the dark. But thanks!”
Damon’s Mitch is the one consistent spark of life, but the film keeps reigning him back in. He freaks out over Beth’s death and their son’s death but then when he’s told he can’t take the bodies because strange diseases need to be investigated, his response is to first blankly refuse to acknowledge his wife’s death, but then just sort of accept it because that’s what a rational society needs if it’s going to fight a disease.
Soderbergh isn’t making a fictionalized historical like And the Band Played On at all, he’s making a training video that will surely end up as the basis for some Lost-derived Fordlandia. His message is clear – when your wife and son get gobsmacked by some unknown illness that may have come from her trip to Macau or may have come because she’s cheating on you with an ex-boyfriend, you are allowed to get angry for ten seconds and then you have to realize that the best thing for you to do is be rational about the whole thing.
People are allowed small moments of emotion in CONTAGION. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) is the CDC’s point man on the disease and he’s a total pro – albeit one that gets kinda angry when his field point man gets infected and tells his fiancé to get out of her city and to Atlanta because a quarantine is coming. These are small moments, though, because Cheever has to be the King of Rationality.
Because films need a bad guy and because Soderbergh thankfully doesn’t go down the “Beth is Patient Zero because she’s a dirty slut” route (her affair isn’t shown or even dwelled upon), the film offers up Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) as a villainous Internet blogger.
If there’s a target Soderbergh is really after here, it’s not all of you dirty people who refuse to wash your hands, it’s all of you dirty people who have blogs and spread misinformation. Krumwiede runs a conspiracy theory blog that has a good stream of daily visitors, and when the epidemic breaks, Krumwiede sells his audience out to get in bed with a company selling a cure that doesn’t work. The idea that someone is acting in a manner that is based on self-interest works directly against CONTAGION’s concept of selfless rationality. While Krumwiede sits at home, spouts lies as truths to make himself rich, we’ve got Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) getting kidnapped and then siding with her kidnappers because of some precious children on the other side of the world because that’s what a selfless rational person does, while Krumwiede stands in direct binary opposition to that. He’s out for himself, which is exactly what’s wrong with people in Soderbergh’s worldview. Normal people look out for themselves, while Mitch, Cheever, and Orantes look out for others.
The other villain – though it’s soft-shoed – is the company that Beth works for that is clearing out the forests of Macau, which are in turn giving wildlife less places to live and feed, which creates weird diseases when bats and pigs share bananas.
CONTAGION is a professional movie but none of the fantastic performances make the film more than the sum of its parts. The really interesting characters – Elliott Gould’s Dr. Sussman and Kate Winslet’s Dr. Mears – are given early screen time and then washed away. It’s not surprising that the characters Soderbergh exorcises from his film are smart people not sitting in protected offices. Sussman doesn’t work for the government, so while he makes a critical early discovery, he’s kept outside the walls of Castle CDC. Mears is the field point man for Cheever, and when she gets sick, her responses are all rational: she takes notes, makes calls, and dies quietly on a cot in a shelter, willing to give her warm coat to someone else even as death approaches.
The one moment when this film hits home with me is when Mitch sets up a surprise prom for his daughter and her boyfriend. He’s spent much of the film being a protective dad and keeping the young lovers apart because he’s understandably concerned about her getting sick (in Soderbergh’s rational training manual, you suppress love in exchange for safety), but once the vaccine is distributed to the boyfriend, Mitch allows the two of them to have a prom inside his house. As the two kids dance downstairs, Mitch is upstairs looking at Beth’s photos from her ill-fated trip and finally lets his grief go, if only for a precious few moments. It’s a really great moment and a really great performance from Damon.
In my review of RED 2 the other day, I said it’d be a future staple of a cable channel that plays old movies because it’s mildly enjoyable and contains lots of stars. Though CONTAGION is a much different film, the result is the same: a mildly enjoyable movie that contains lots of stars.
Please check out Mark Bousquet’s published works:
The Haunting of Kraken Moor (horror)
Gunfighter Gothic (weird western)
Stuffed Animals for Hire (children lit)
Dreamer’s Syndrome (urban fantasy)
Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches (cosmic pulp)
Adventures of the Five (children lit)
Marvel Comics on Film