Germaphobes and shut-ins, THIS is the cinematic validation you’ve been waiting for! (Bird — six months!)
There is one reason and one reason only that Contagion made as much money as it did last fall, and it’s staring at you, dying, on the bottom right side of that movie poster. Though hardly a spoiler alert when the trailer gives it away, SPOILER ALERT: GOOP founder and Emmy improviser Gwyneth Paltrow bites it in the first five minutes of the movie. The people want what they want! Why this strategy didn’t work for Jersey Girl I have no idea, but there you go — kill a loathed actress in the opening scene of your movie and the audience will come in droves to watch. Even if the rest of the movie has them grabbing for the nearest bottle of Purell and hoping to God no one in the theater coughs!
The plot is pretty straightforward: an airborne pathogen of unknown origin begins striking across the globe, first in isolated cases but quickly consuming whole communities and cities. Society struggles to keep it together as the CDC searches in vain for an antidote. There is very little singing or dancing throughout.
Make no mistake: you WILL leave
the theater your living room not wanting to speak to anyone (even your date/romantic partner), cautiously avoiding surfaces and mapping the quickest route to CVS. The movie practically claws at you, daring you to ask “am I feverish? Maybe itchy?” Contagion is visceral in a way few movies of its type can match.
But it also takes its sweet-ass time cultivating that kind of reaction, which is both remarkable and maddening at the same time. Like Zodiac, it’s aiming at a wide-angle level of journalistic authenticity — taking you beat-by-beat through this pandemic; what it would feel like to process such an insane event. And that’s very cool! Not enough movies take the time to dig into the nut and bolts of their central conflict. But after a while you start to wonder if you need ALL those subplots, up to and including Marion Cotillard being kidnapped by a rogue Chinese scientist. She’s beautiful, we love her, we want to marry her and buy her presents but she could also maybe be cut from the movie entirely.
That’s the thing: there are simply a LOT of characters in Contagion. And for a veritable “who’s who” of contemporary dramatic acting that includes
Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne
The Dad from ‘Veronica Mars’
…not many of them are all that memorable! Even characters we spend more time with, like Matt Damon or Laurence Fishburne, play second-fiddle to the Capital-P Pandemic and its world-devastating reach.
But that’s arguably the point? Contagion is, at its core, a B-movie wearing a smarter jacket. Strip the movie of its cool style and Jude Law British teeth and you’ve got “a cross-section of humanity reacts to an event well outside their control.” Could be Transformers there…Independence Day… Moments of real human emotion stop this from being either one of those movies, no question, but a pervading sort of cold detachment keeps the film on that B-level. Which, honestly, seems to be becoming a Steven Soderbergh staple. The (latter) Oceans movies, Haywire — they’re experimental like all of Soderbergh’s, but only so much as they’re exercises in genre. Contagion continues the trend with APLOMB.
All of which is to say: it’s kind of an interesting movie. Not a great one — who could ever knock off Outbreak? Please. — but worthy of conversation, whether on its merits as a genre exercise or effectiveness at scaring the shit out of you. Any movie that can make you consider buying stock in sanitary wipes has to have achieved SOMETHING.