Prologue: In Regards to Hurricane Sandy*
I wasn’t even aware Contagion existed until the recent super-storm created the circumstances for me to find it. Anxious about what Hurricane Sandy had to deliver, I spent an adrenalized, pre-storm movie marathon watching disaster epics from the mid-90’s. Surely the best way to show a hurricane you’ve got no fear is to get jacked-up Tommy Lee Jones style while the wind hollers around the eaves, yeah? (Miraculously, it worked! Not only did we stay safe but also unimaginably well-lit with one small power outage…on that day. The rest of the week has been full of trees thunking down uninvited in the yard and brown-to-black-to-brown outs, but I count that as extraordinary luck.)
I whistled over the wind, engrossed in every decent disaster-ama Netflix offers until I ran out of options. With the storm was still acting a boss, I tossed up a hail mary and searched “top fifty disaster movies OF ALL TIME”. Culling from many I’d already seen, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) stuck out in the “meh, this was okay” ranks. As Sandy danced her wild rumpus, I settled in for viewing, armed only with a few reviews crying “blasé” and a dubious attitude about the magnitude of superstars swarming the casting bill.
(Now hang in there; this will no doubt be a tall drink of water, being blog-rusted in cahoots with a complex film to tackle. This movie is totally worth it, trust me.)
Initial Reactions & Overall Taste
1. Instantly engaged by the soundtrack and color scheme.
2. The opening 8-odd minutes of disconnected jumps between the first-infected is striking; the direction/editing drives unease to apprehension to tension in such short order that my smoking adrenal glands dig up hidden reserves of chemicals to gnosh.
3. Matt Damon has aged into a lovable, middle-aged father type and-OH JEEZE LOUISE Gwyneth Paltrow is burning her horrifying death-throes into my brain dictionary under “pandemic.” Good god-DAMN she is unsettling.
I’ma be straight: everything about this movie went above and beyond for me. More favorable reviews I caught before pressing “play” shared similar warnings à la: “If you want a horror or disaster film, skip Contagion; it’s a solid, documentary style narrative about the affects of a pandemic blah blah..” After enough of this cautionary tale, I tuned in trusting the sentiment. Happily–and maybe due to the subjectivity of defining what “horror” or “disaster” means–this movie scored both genres for me. The odds and sheer power of a pandemic scare me to the core, and the unapologetic depiction of an overwhelming race to find anything to curb literally millions of deaths sure sounds like a disaster to me!
The Trio That Won My Top Praise
1 – Pacing
Editing choices that dictated jumps between the parallel story lines reflects (and enhances) the various speeds of a pandemic’s life cycle. Quick successions from here to there to yon echoes the frantic urgency dogging our characters, from response organizations cobbling a plan, scientists racing to identify the virus, to fact-hungry citizens in panic, looking for someone to tell them what to do. Complementary decisions to go from charged story line or frantic character to a static, near-claustrophobic counter-story do much to drive home that in a pandemic there is just as much hell in waiting or isolation as there is in the race for answers and a cure.
Normally I can get frustrated or disappointed in films defined by the hyperlink narrative Soderbergh is fond of using. They either:
a) smack viewers two-thirds of the way through a tediously paced production with an overwrought, plot-colliding, “the veil is lifted!” jambalaya that tanks any gravity in the finale, OR
b) obsessively focus on only a third or half of the plot threads–rounding out characters, using thoughtful timing–but then totally cram the remaining threads into whatever chronology and time frame they have left
This never fails to jettison me, screaming, right out of my immersion.
I am pleased to report that there was only a glimmer of the latter fallacy in Dr. Sussman’s (Elliott Gould) thread as he defies a cease & desist order and keeps working with the virus to help find a vaccine. His character sort of pops off the grid for an extended time but it mirrors his secret lab work. Frankly I didn’t even notice it during the movie, only in hindsight.
2- Actors/Character Development
Biggest thing about the star-heavy ensemble is that every actor/actress cast was both a natural fit for the written character and, despite being enormously famous, each possesses the rare quality of filling no more of the movie than their given role. Damon’s tragic, enduring character dominated my empathy because his character was meant to, not because he eclipsed anyone with his stardom. Other standouts for me based on performance tandem to role development were Kate Winslet as the vividly real EIS officer Dr. Erin Mears, and Jude Law’s delightfully unexpected, loathsome portrayal of false-prophet blogger Alan Krumwiede. (*Check out top link for a full list!*)
What more can be said about the character development beyond the actors other than to high-five screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for crafting each role to its full potential within the scope of screen time and plot thread? Not one character felt flat, unfinished, unrecognized, or failed to evoke an immersed reaction from me as the viewer. Double high-fives and a fist bump for doing it with such a populated cast.
3- Plot n’ Plots
The spinal plot–the sum of the whole–may have been the reason critics decided that Contagion doesn’t qualify in the “disaster” genre. And it DOESN’T qualify if the accepted scope of a disaster film is defined by one of about four predictable story arcs punctuated by the following: a blithely unassuming introduction, unsettling harbinger of things to come, initial peak of sporadic disaster activity (SURPRISE!) effecting the main character(s) so totally that they leap into into heroics from here on out, an uneasy lull offering options to shock audience with untimely supporting role demise, a wildly tense shriek into quasi-absurdist climax, and final ease into relieved or hopeful conclusion.
If that is the currently accepted disaster movie, then Contagion is a transcendent iteration waiting for us to haul ass into the future.
Back to the main plot and sub-threads: fully-realized, unexpected and original, frighteningly realistic, subtly connected, multi-faceted, and with a refreshing absence of forced or too-good-to-be-true connections in the 11th hour. The narrative’s natural horror in watching a virus emerge from nothing and relentlessly rise to become a pandemic, reaches choice level of impact and sustainability. Every scene delivers enough information to pull us into the fold of growing chaos but doesn’t answer so many questions that we walk away omniscient.
Encouraged by the film’s characters and plot journeys, our mental Center for Logic and Reason in Crisis Situations singles out “Where and how did the virus first infect man?” as the top vital question to answer. It subliminally acknowledges that finding a vaccine is the core answer but is being handled by racing scientists; we the viewer can’t help them there. Surprisingly, we actually get the whole answer of origin as the film endures, richly rewarded in the final minutes with a blunt visual timeline that leaves no secrets. Most full-scale disaster plots rely on a certain degree of need-to-know basis and deus ex machina, so Contagion seems to committed to earnest disclosure to give the viewer footing amid the devastation. But…by the time that the mystery is laid bare, the virus in decline, and an informed control over our mortal fear of helpless vulnerability is in our grasp, that’s when the real horror sinks in.
In the end, it wasn’t really so important to find patient zero and the place they called home. After all that time lapsed and lives destroyed, all we’ve accomplished by answering “why” and “how” is to catch up to the beginning again. All we really gain through the search for accurate timelines, exact location, and elusive vector is a sense of purposeful accomplishment that amounts to nothing more than a scientific study tucked into the archives of hindsight. It ends up alongside all the other hard-won facts in times of rampant smallpox and polio; information that did us no good and stopped none of the loss. The real horror is that, if and when it happens again, we start the race all over with only as much control as the virus allows us time because a virus is the most powerful, adaptable, and unpredictable monster of them all. As if that wasn’t enough to send us away rattled, the film warns that contagion is far from the only deadly force in a pandemic by displaying eerily plausible fallacies of human behavior and the tragic consequences in a time of mass hysteria.
I know that was a lot of exposition with glaringly few actual film details. It’s a quandary: an overview would do the film no justice, and a play-by-play would give you the facts but rob so much of the immersion it has to offer. Decide for yourself if Contagion was a genre hit-or-miss, or if your experience with it led you to the same unease that was left with me. Here’s with my final reaction: the first time I went out after Sandy spent her wrath and every time since, well, I’m not so oblivious anymore to the person coughing openly on merchandise or the kid wiping snot on his palm right before grabbing the pole on the subway, just a few feet from where I’m standing…
This is how I feel when I have the common cold; a pandemic would not be good for me.
*To any of you reading who suffered any ill-effects before/during/after Sandy’s arrival, I wish you and yours the best of a speedy recovery. Though we are less than 15 minutes from the bitter Atlantic, hung out like a sore thumb, my locale in MA was very fortunate compared to our neighboring communities. Good thoughts and good luck!