Monday, 26 September 2011

“The truth about this virus is being kept from the world”

Contagion: directed Steven Soderbergh; written by Scott Z. Burns

I’m always impressed by films which manage to achieve a universal type significant despite the specificity of their issues. Oftentimes it’s literary adaptation, like how the house in Howards End is representative of more than just a house; or how the procedures at Lacuna in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind suggests repercussions for more than just our romantic lives. Contagion, though, with its deliberate nods to internal organisations it aspires to be a universally conscious drama. I’ve heard more than a few critics compare it to the prototypical disaster with its generally physicality toned down to something more cerebral. For me, though, Burns’ screenplay immediately intrigues me because of the science-fiction premise which could easily be a nod to a classic type of horror flick. Imagine the airborne disease replaced with a zombie virus and the movie’s fabric would change while curiously remaining the same.
Contagion is the type of film curiously low on cinematic pretentiousness – for better, for worse. It’s so tightly constructed that its screenplay that the screenplay skilfully, and deceptively I might add, seems to emerge as the film’s beacon. And, Burns, writing is a significant portion of the film’s success. He’s acutely aware of those universal themes which he wishes to address and he immediately launches into his discourse craftily avoiding the usual hectoring you would anticipate from the genre. His screenplay, unlike the actions it’s presenting, unfolds placidly almost journalistic in its tone and the Soderbergh’s direction matches it with aplomb. I may have mentioned before that my favourite Soderbergh film is Erin Brockovich, a film where his direction is so on-point in the best of ways preventing the simplicity of his protagonist’s life from becoming simplistic. Whereas there he was intent on drawing the audience in, here he’s intent on keeping them at a distance. He handles the presentation of the events with enough deftness for us to attain sympathy, but in doing so creates something of an alternate universe where their world seems much more fantastical – or so he’d have us believe – than ours.
It’s Soderbergh’s direction which gives the film its personality, which is all the same never quite personal. There’s a faint – almost imperceptible – wave of cynicism in the way he studies his characters. I suspect that it’s part of his overall attempt to underscore the basic inanity of human nature. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t overemphasise these themes. Considering the wide potential for the film to have overstressed the mob psychology tendencies of human nature I’m impressed there are only a few direct indications, none of which is garishly presented. The indistinct shadow of resentment which follows Paltrow’s patient zero is one of the most interesting, albeit underdeveloped, aspects of the story. The fact that the film is so succinct means that the hoard of issues it suggests could present a plethora of topics to discuss. It’s impressive how Soderbergh and Burns never attempt to glamorise its characters, but it’s still somewhat troubling that those flashbacks of Beth seem to be faintly buoyed by an accusatory perspective.
Like another disaster drama Airport the film’s actors are left to fend for themselves in a sort of sink-or-swim scenario where they’ve mostly got little time to establish their inclinations without coming off as terribly prosaic. The entire cast succeeds in being effective even if Cotillard’s scientist seems oddly like an automaton on occasion. Fishburne and Law are the most effective of the cast with the latter in particular making me distrust the film’s intent to make him the most despicable of the characters. Really, they’re all just pawns in the film’s overarching intent to establish its point. I’m not absolutely certain what that is, though. The fact that this could probably happen to us seems too rudimentary, and for all its discussion points I suppose the film isn’t any less successful if it’s just a thought-provoking entertainment romp – a scientific twist on horror, or a horrific twist on science. …One or the other….perhaps both. I can’t be certain. It flourishes regardless.


Dan O. said...

Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. Nice review Andrew.

Candice Frederick said...

LOL. i was just about to ask what you thought the intent was. i really didn't think the film had an agenda, so to speak. but i thought the pacing was good, i just wish the character arc's were drawn a little better. i could really only get into damon's character, even though they all had their moments where i was slighly invested. jude law was good in this too.

Luke said...

It was better than it needed to be, which I appreciate. I think the glimmer of humanity that each character has is what brings the film's personality. It sure was a bloodbath with all those pretty Hollywood types running around and catching diseases, though.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Thoughtful review, especially interesting comments about the way Soderbergh judges his characters in order to implicate the audience.

Can't wait to see it.