Friday, 20 April 2012

Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

In Contagion, the popular disaster movie genre is brought back in an unashamedly unpretentious fashion by director Steven Soderbergh. Armed as usual with an army of A-list names, Soderbergh's B-movie reinvigorates rather than reinvents the tried and tested story of a worldwide epidemic. Its message is a simple one and one we've heard before, but the film succeeds by taking its time and never forgetting (even for a moment) what it sets out to do - making it a low-grabbing success. But is this enough? 

Starting the proceedings is Gwyneth Paltrow talking to, presumably, an ex-boyfriend on her mobile at an airport. She doesn't look her usual stunning self and soon enough we'll find out why. "Day 2" appears on the screen and before long we're following other random people around the world who are clearly disintegrating. The constant barrage of shots showing the germs spreading from person to person is a horrific reminder of how linked we all are, and the unknowing contact we maintain with each other everyday. As the days go on this mystery illness spreads at an alarming rate and it's not long before panic starts manifesting within the general public. This is where Contagion harbours most of its strength; an hour into the film, as the fear starts to grow, the fear mirrors the disease in the extreme rate it multiplies and changes its host for the worst. As the government control the release of information and advice to manipulate the world's emotions, fear becomes not only a weapon and a tool, but a spreading virus. 

These points of insight don't sound very deep, frankly they're not at all, nor is the film trying to act on a higher plain of IQ. Contagion's simplicity however isn't where its weaknesses lie; for a film that boasts an ever ending list of talented performers, it just doesn't have anything for them to do. As the multiple narratives plod on and never once converge, by the end these various stories have barely moved on or had the slightest breath of life pumped through them. 

Soderbergh regular Matt Damon gets the best deal of the bunch as a father who's lost his wife and step son, he and his remaining daughter do their best to survive and do it rather well, the risk is never high enough to care. Marion Cotillard doesn't have much to say or do whilst on screen, but then her epidemiologist character disappears for a painful amount of time following a rather weak kidnapping plot. Kate Winslet suffers the same fate as the others, we don't get to know them so we don't invest, the characters in Contagion are interchangeable to a point. 

The one character who does gets enough time to shine is Jude Law, who although having the most annoying character in the film at least has a personality to feel something for. His battle with the government and health department over their cerebral controlling of information is about as interesting as it gets, with the internet being shown as the future weapon of revealing corruption in high echelons. The internet is a powerful weapon to the common man, but can still be used for better or for worse.

The soundtrack provided by Cliff Martinez provides the perfect apocalyptic soundscape needed whilst giving Soderbergh enough snare to show off his precision editing, and the direction is as economic and unfussy as we've come to expect from such a prolific filmmaker.

Contagion has a simple and direct message that could have ended up feeling more like a public health announcement, but it manages to deliver this well, if at a cost. The script is so bland that even the Hollywood dream team can't raise it up a notch, and while we can forgive it for not saying anything new or profoundly interesting, some thrills would have been nice despite the relatively refreshing show of restraint.