By Ben Markley
“Contagion,” good or bad, is not fun to watch. It’s like “The Passion of the Christ”: engaging, thoughtful, well-done and relieving when it’s over.
“Contagion,” a thriller about a worldwide epidemic of an airborne pathogen, has caused movie-goers to cough up $44 million thus far. Maybe because the film is not simply about trying to stop a physical disease; it’s about the social breakdown, the political struggle and the emotional dilemma of survival. That being said, it’s disturbing, it’s not fun, and it’s good.
The film tracks these various ideas through a large cast of stars, and one quickly realizes that there is no central protagonist in this story. Humanity is the protagonist, and these characters are simply symbols: the common man (Matt Damon), the greedy exploiter (Jude Law), the scapegoat (Laurence Fishburne), etc., all trying to deal with death.
With this kind of storytelling, the characters do tend to come off as simple and one-dimensional. Mitch Emhoff (Damon) wants to keep his daughter safe. Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) wants to find a cure. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is literally just there to die. The most complex character is probably Alan Krumwiede (Law), who starts out as a blogger trying to uncover the truth and turns into a manipulative demagogue.
The film’s plot is really a web of plotlines, a concept that is rarely done well. (Anybody remember the 2009 “Fame” remake? No? Yeah, that’s probably best.) “Contagion,” due in part to its star power and heavy subject matter, pulls it off pretty well.
However, it does have shortcomings. Marion Cotillard’s character is good for nothing other than making a weak emotional appeal and jarring the overall story with her plotline. Beth cheats on Mitch for no other reason than to make me dislike Paltrow even more than I already do.
There’s an impressive amount of star power in “Contagion,” and despite the negative reputations of numerous star-studded films, the parts fit most of the actors like a glove. Damon, Fishburne, Law and Winslet embody their characters with natural authority, and their celebrity presence actually seems to raise the stakes. After all, who wants to see Jason Bourne or Morpheus die in a hospital?
“Contagion” leaves its biggest impression through its powerful imagery. The makers shot this film with the simple goal of making the audience as germophobic as Tony Shalhoub in “Monk.” They succeed. That extra three seconds where the camera lingers on how many subway rails that sick guy just touched awakens hypersensitivity in us that we might not have known was possible.
Anxiety. Fear. Panic. That is the atmosphere that the film creates, and it’s thick. This presentation of humanity as willing to loot, lie and kill when it’s pushed too far. It’s hard to tell whether the disease or humanity is more destructive, as Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) points out to Krumwiede.
In addition to being socially disturbing, the film has a handful of queasy shots. Most of them revolve around Beth, which involve two seizures and an autopsy where we actually see the top of her head folding over her face. Throw in the stone-dead face of a young boy, and you’ve got an uneasy movie-going experience.
Despite all this, “Contagion” is more than “Lord of the Flies” in Chicago. The heart-warming, beautiful moments are few and far between but, against the backdrop of an inconceivable tragedy, they do their job. The film is sober but hopeful, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, simply, as Steven Soderbergh put it to MoviesOnline in an interview, “ultra-realistic.”
All this to say you’re probably not going to be suggesting this for a casual movie night any time soon (unless your group likes watching “There Will be Blood” for kicks and giggles), but it is a smart, memorable film with a lot to offer.
Contact Ben Markley, news editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.