Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

‘Contagion’ Doesn’t Want to Reach Out and Touch You

Kathleen Murphy’s review of Contagion was written for Movies/MSN at the time of the film’s original release.

Steven Soderbergh’s super-creepy Contagion does for pandemic what the Oscar-winning director did for drug Traffic back in 2000. Mimicking the insidious spread of coke-related ills, he tracks a lethal little virus—bat-borne, then transmitted to a piglet—as it metastasizes out of a friendly handshake to world-killer. A panic-worthy journey for sure, but no need to buckle up for fast-cutting, tension-building, apocalyptic action­­—or anything else that might significantly raise your blood pressure. Less hysterical than hushed, more numbing than terrifying, Contagion‘s closer to documentary—an imagined record of how global citizenry might realistically react to monumental crisis.

Says Soderbergh: “We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes.”

Accordingly, the director paints his plague canvas with a muted palette that leaches heat and color out of potential melodrama; sometimes the very air seems dimmed, weighted with invisible death. Chronicling the mundane, almost slow-motion process of coping with pandemic, the movie’s narrative engine runs cool rather than hot—in contrast to Outbreak (1995), in which mild-mannered scientists morph into action-heroes, questing for curative antibodies while fighting off trigger-happy generals.

Contagion has more in common with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1971): Set underground in hyper-sterile laboratory environs, that chilly movie’s action was mostly of the cerebral kind, featuring a quartet of dispassionate experts glued to microscopes, computer screens and observation windows, looking to decode a deadly, alien virus.

Similarly, Contagion‘s way of picturing catastrophic events is three clicks removed, like peering into a microscope, watching cellular warfare under glass. The cast is overstocked with attractive A-listers—Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, et al.—but none stands out.

Soderbergh pulls a Hitchcock (Psycho) by offing a lead early on; during the autopsy, that actress’s iconic features are literally peeled away. He continues to subvert our pleasure in movie stars as warm, beautiful bodies, objects of subliminal desire: how can we fantasize about intimacy when human contact—an embrace, a kiss, a sigh—is fatal? Their charisma banked, the stars—potential Petri dishes of infection just like regular people—deliberately do not shine.

Quarantine puts the kibosh on those staples of the traditional disaster movie, loner heroics or Capra-esque communal activism. Emerging momentarily as a smart, no-nonsense healthcare organizer, the striking Winslet soon falls out of focus, another ravaged body in a gymnasium full of anonymous dead. Cotillard, as a World Health Organization doc, gets kidnapped in China, her ransom a supply of the curative vaccine. Distinctly unthrilling, this plotline peters out in anticlimax, an exercise in futility.

As End Times loom, Soderbergh spotlights, almost clinically, human selfishness and short-sightedness, the metabolism of everyday life. When a maverick researcher cracks the viral code, a rival scientist blurts, “Now he’ll publish!” Nurses strike, bureaucrats argue budget, funeral homes turn away the dead, the government (as usual) fiddles while Rome burns. Action-movie addicts will jones in vain for some bigger-than-life villainy to offer escape from Contagion‘s enervating realism. 

Reprising the structure if not the tempo of Traffic, Soderbergh deploys a network of narrative threads to catch the inexorable spread and impact of infection: from the globe-trotting Patient Zero, to global health organizations desperately trying to find a cure, to foodlines on the homefront. The Internet, potentially a secure lifeline for the world’s isolated souls, spreads another kind of lethal virus. A popular blogger, aptly named Krumwiede, unleashes a highly infectious meme about government–Big Pharma conspiracy and a cure called Forsythia. What’s this cross between Andrew Breitbart and Michael Moore after? A killing in hedge fund futures! (Krumwiede’s played by a snaggle-toothed Jude Law, recalling his rodent self in Road to Perdition.)

Soderbergh does provide some warm spots in his low-key vision of humanity in extremis. A father (Matt Damon), bereft of wife and little boy, guards his daughter from contagion, sealing her off from even gestures of love. A high-level staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (Laurence Fishburne) gives a janitor’s kid his own allotted vaccine. And, of course, there’s one act of world-saving heroism—but hey, the lady’s hoping for a Nobel Prize. These moments don’t pack much emotional punch, seeming almost like afterthoughts in Soderbergh’s chilly laboratory of catastrophe.

Though far from a likeable movie, Contagion‘s admirable as a highly controlled, verging-on-Kubrickian exercise in directorial vision and style. What’s most disturbing about this low-energy disaster movie is how tellingly it taps into America’s current angst, the fear of a slow decline that can’t be cured, all our heroes having succumbed to a plague of Krumwiedes.