Review: This is a film about an oft-sensationalized subject — pandemics — that is justifiably sensational in more than one sense of the word. It’s a highly tactile narrative, with the camera focusing tight and swooping down low to bring our attention to the moment when a virus transfers from person to surface and back again, reminding us how often we touch our faces and each other without a second thought, and making human existence seem fraught with peril. There are no jump scares or unbearable scenes of gore and violence — not that it is without a bit of the latter two — but it’s terrifying in its implications, because it makes you believe. ‘Contagion’ wants to convince you of two things: 1) A very nasty pandemic (probably) will happen, and 2) We will survive it. Fear not; the story is actually quite buoyant, with nobility and self-sacrifice informing the characters’ actions more often than not, and it ends up being as heartwarming as it is frightening. Each plotline has a subdued but worthy arc, fueled by straightforward performances that capture the human element and eschew traditional Hollywood posing. There’s only one character that comes off like a caricature — Jude Law’s blogger stereotype that deliberately spreads misinformation about the plague. It irritated me, and it’s arguably unfair to New Media in general. Even the blogger threads, however, have some value in the greater tapestry of the film, and by no means do they spoil it.
Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns manage to render layer upon layer of significance that may not be clear on first viewing. The overall theme is about what it means to be a fragile physical being in a world teeming with hostile invaders that exploit the most fundamental of human instincts — touch. The first lines of the film are about sex, the ultimate manifestation of human physicality, and in this instance it is transgressive. Here the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, implants the idea that drives the film: touch is sacred. The first scenes also echo Alfred Hitchcock’s classic ‘Psycho’, where a woman’s sexual misdeeds are punished by its own titular evil — unlike Marion Crane, however, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is a wife and mother, held up, again, as something central and sacred. Her death means the death of humanity. Arguably, the dramatic spindle of the film is her step-daughter, as she sweetly and desperately attempts to romance a neighborhood boy in the midst of the outbreak. In this way, sex is restored to innocence, and there is hope. Her father, played by Matt Damon, exists to support this symbol and represent the general human response to the pandemic. He’s the straight-laced middle class American guy who’s in over his head, just trying to handle the fear and the grief brought on by a situation over which he can exercise no control. He’s also the chief symbol of the masculine instinct in the story — the desire to fight for and secure one’s loves and property — and how it is so easily undermined by the invisible enemy, one that can’t be stopped by brawn or bullets.
The real glory of ‘Contagion’ is how the government scientists — U.N. and American — are spared the usual suspicion reserved for authority figures. They make their mistakes and have their conflicts, but ultimately they manifest, in spades, all the heroic instincts that have enabled humans to survive thus far. Science isn’t presented as esoteric, but as an intricate puzzle, and the filmmakers have enough respect for their audience to actually give us a few of the pieces — not enough to solve it, but to give us a reasonable idea of the challenges that face real scientists. This is also an example of narrative innovation; meaning, the filmmakers find conflicts in reality that translate well into fiction. Procedural stories are popular because we expect them to represent sequences of cause and effect that could easily occur in the real world — often, however, procedurals merely copy each other and don’t reflect the truth, but in ‘Contagion’s case, the nitty-gritty is exceptionally well-researched and feels fresh even when it evokes familiar imagery. The fair portrayal of authority figures and the legitimately plausible challenges they face add up to a high level of believability. It’s the filmmakers’ appeal to our common sense, and it works.
Not everything is effective, however. One could argue that Jude Law’s character (the Nasty Blogger) is the antagonist; he is, after all, the most despicable human being on display. It’s better to identify him as the scapegoat, which is why he weakens the narrative. ‘Contagion’s true antagonist (the virus, obviously) is effective precisely because it is beyond the audience’s thirst for justice. It is essentially Death incarnate, and all the raging in the world won’t undo it. ‘Contagion’ requires a reasoned response from its characters and its audience, and the scapegoat character undermines that. I would not say that the Nasty Blogger is unnecessary or wrong in narrative principal, merely that the filmmakers overplay their hand. I understand the point they’re trying to make about the viral (get it?) spread of misinformation; but it would have been far more prudent, in my view, to create a sympathetic character that serves this purpose, emphasizing the simple truth that lies are most often spread by people who believe in them.
Every great antagonist deserves a great presentation. The electronic score by Cliff Martinez (who, incidentally, also scored this year’s ‘Drive’) gives the viral menace a dreadful life — invisible, pulsing, insidious and ever-present. It makes for an intriguing relationship between the visual touchstones that mark the virus’ presence and the sonic atmosphere that communicates its character. Like the shark in ‘Jaws’, the antagonist floats through our mental space, heralded by music, but is still able to act independently of its herald, a technique that preserves surprise.
I’ve already mentioned the tactile nature of the cinematography, but what makes it so memorable is how well Soderbergh manages the relationship between color, editing, locations and story beats. When you’re talking cinema, color is of supreme importance — it is not merely the surface sheen, it is where the story happens in cinematic terms. I’m using the word “color” very broadly, mind, and of course the other elements of visual storytelling — lines, space, contrast, etc. — are equally important, but ‘Contagion’s use of color is particularly striking. I would like to do a frame-by-frame analysis at some point, but for now suffice it to say that the way the filmmakers use color to indicate mood, place, and story progression is masterful. It is one thing to use a warm color to mean, for instance, “Home”; it is another to expand that use across all sorts of spaces, times, and moments, constantly riffing on familiar emotions.
In summary, ‘Contagion’ is a crowd-pleaser that’s suspenseful enough for general audiences, smart enough for the high-minded, and deep enough for the most discerning of cinephiles. I recommend it.
For more on ‘Contagion’, I would suggest a smattering of articles. For instance, this take on the science behind it that appeared in Slate; this wonderfully academic look at the film from Discours du Cinema; and a slightly more in-depth look from Mr. Gilmore at Once Upon A Time In The Cinema.