It seems odd that over the course of the last month we have seen the release of Perfect Sense, Carl Tibbetts’ low-key three-hander Retreat, plus the ever-reliable Steven Soderbergh’s comparatively immense effort Contagion. Each, in its own way, attempts to portray the effect of the threat of global pandemic at the grass-roots level of the fractured inter-personal relationships of ordinary people, and each has something distinctly its own to say on the matter.
Yet while the British efforts operate creatively within the immovable confines of stringent budgets, Contagion boasts $60m production values and an ensemble cast as bulbously corpulent with A-list names as any Sodebergh has yet assembled. It is a shame, therefore, to report that Contagion, despite glimpses of promise, is a bit of a turgid mess.
The film begins with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Beth, in an airport following a business trip to Hong Kong, feeling more than a little worse for wear. Upon her return both to the US and to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) she falls desperately ill, while Mitch remains mysteriously unaffected.
Spates of the same crippling illness flare up sporadically in both China and the US, and Jude Law’s snaggletoothed blogger Alan Krumwiede is first to connect the dots. Sporting an Australian accent the likes of which is generally reserved for inter-country Ashes mockery, Krumwiede’s motivations are suitably shrouded, hovering beguilingly between self-aggrandising solipsism and selfless civil duty.
The Center for Disease Control is cautious of recklessly jumping to doomsday conclusions, all too aware of mankind’s atavistic prevalence for descending into to panic and mob violence, yet its reticence to act gives the disease the few days it needs to gain an insurmountable foothold. Doctors Ellis Cheever (a relentlessly avuncular Laurence Fishburne) and Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), head up the search for a cure, while Marion Cotillard’s Dr Leonora Orantes, in a middling, divergent story arc, travels to China and becomes embroiled in the country’s own preventative efforts.
All the while, we have the generally excellent Bryan Cranston as Fishburne’s friend and boss, and a criminally underused (yet oddly wooden) Elliot Gould as an epidemiologist who refuses to give up his efforts, even when ordered by the powers that be to do so.
It may sound like a fast-paced, globe-trotting spectacle, but the film steadfastly refuses – for better or worse – to pursue the popcorn-munching lines previously trodden by films such as Outbreak, instead spending an inordinate amount of time dwelling on people sitting around tables, talking.
This tack isn’t inherently dull, but in Contagion, it is – the actions of the Government agencies seemingly revolve around exchanges between a select few individuals, yet this narrow selection does not provide these common scenes with focus enough to draw in the film’s ending with anything approaching momentum.
This is not to say the questions Contagion throws up aren’t interesting ones. The 21st century’s voracious appetite for instantaneous, digitally distributed news and its obsession with PR are intelligently explored, with one of the film’s best scenes coming at the hands of Law’s televised grilling of Fishburne, somewhat appositely depicting how the media’s destructive hunger for minor scandal can irretrievably taint a hardworking, wholesome individual, to the overall expense of all of us.
Law’s character, despite his oscillating antipodean accent and comedy-daft dentures, is the character whose motivations are by far the most intriguing, his being the only ones which aren’t laser-guidedly singular and remaining largely ambiguous for the vast majority of the runtime.
In a film comprised of so many disparate strands, some were destined be more successful than others. Cotillard’s, in particular, seems rather extraneous, while Elliot Gould’s character threatens prominence before being smothered beneath story strands deemed more necessary in order to tie up the loose ends.
Having bigger names in smaller roles is one of the film’s strengths (without giving anything away, it is fair to say that some characters fare surprisingly better than others), yet wasted screen time would have benefited the film by being unceremoniously excised.
Most bizarrely, Matt Damon is given surprisingly little to do with a part as central as his, as his domestic trials are not imbued with necessary grief or pathos to make his desperate efforts to secure his family’s safety pack the requisite punch. He is our eyes on the ground, the everyman witnessing society collapse, whose immunity bears no relevance to the plot beyond being a contrivance to allow him – and, therefore, us – to see it.
Kate Winslet, however, is excellent, her emotions allowed to swell to the surface, at least giving us a glimpse of the realities of the harm the disease investigators are exposing themselves to. The rest of the cast are barely seen to even ruminate on the tragedies unspooling before their eyes, chatting in offices, spouting pseudo-science, and staring at computer representations of a virus they are only objectively trying to comprehend.
Soderbergh’s visual eye does occasionally provides welcome flair if little tension, and several scenes are cleverly played, with suitably terse and sparse incidental music. One in particular is superb, with CCTV footage of Paltrow’s character seamlessly interspersed with flashbacks of the same event. It is fantastically directed, while the rest of the film is never anything less than competent.
That Contagion confidently addresses many of the themes you’d expect is not in question – it is very much a relevant, 21st century disaster film. Yet in its forays into governmental bureaucracy, media machinations and human desperation, it doesn’t tell us anything about ourselves which we haven’t been told before.