Movies like this frustrate me. They collect a great cast of stars along with an accomplished director with an interesting story to tell, but they somehow fail to make anything interesting. Contagion is an okay film in terms of acting, camerawork and general storytelling, but it goes nowhere fast. It starts out with lots promise thanks to the tension built by director Steven Soderbergh, but it slowly infects the audience with boredom and a general lack of point. Those of you saying that the slow as molasses pace isn’t for anyone and is more of a required taste can suck it because I’ve sat through the roadshow edition of Che, a previous Soderbergh film that carried a running time of over four hours and while that was rather long I thought it was very engaging and an overall great film. Contagion on the other hand had me checking my watch after about an hour. The film starts strong and slowly fizzles out leaving you with a disappointed ending that feels very rushed.
Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home from an international trip. From the opening scenes you view the sickly Beth as she gets worse, eventually leading to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) bringing her into the hospital. She dies of an unknown virus and it all goes to shit from there. People across the world are becoming infected, spreading the virus and dying at an alarming rate.
From this point the film follows several different doctors, bloggers and everyday people as they try and survive this pandemic. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) are hot on the case trying to get to the core of this nasty situation. While Cheevers deals with the upper management and public, Mears is sent to Minnesota to investigate how Beth died and who she came in contact with on the trip and on the way home. While this is happening we have Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Collitard) in Hong Kong trying to figure out where it all started. You also have the conspirator named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) who runs a website and is questioning every measure of protocol the CDC takes.
The films story follows different sets of characters all over the world in a span of a few hundred days. The characters are all connected in a way that helps bring some sort of point to the whole thing, but due to some pacing problems it all sort of crumbles away rapidly. The film starts strong with the whole mystery surrounding the virus, but after we get introduced to a number of characters it starts to feel like it’s all becoming some sort of cover-up for a story that isn’t going anywhere. You could have easily cut out maybe 3 or 4 characters and you would have still reached the same destination.
Contagion is the result of getting a great crew on an otherwise messy project. Not even the great Steven Soderbergh along with his all-star cast could save a story that has so little going for it. The tension and horror of an unknown virus killing possibly billions is a scary thing and the film grasps that scary feeling of the unknown, but it never fully runs with it. The few characters that we do spend time with are fully fleshed out and really do work, but when you start throwing in other big names just for the sake of a small side story it starts to feel a little tedious. It felt like they knew they had a weak story and were just trying to cover it up by making it more confusing than it needs to be. It never truly feels hard to follow, but it does often times feel pointless to spend ten to fifteen minutes with a side character that goes absolutely nowhere by the end of the film.
Aside from the always good performances by Damon, Winslet and Fishburne, I’d say Contagion really only has a few small things that make it not completely wasteful. The music for starters is great and gives off a very odd but chilling vibe. Composer Cliff Martinez has some really memorable tracks that are very haunting with their techno like beats. The visuals are bleak, washed out and just ugly to look at, but I’m assuming that was what Soderbergh was going for. I really liked how he focused lots of shots on basic things like handshakes, touching things and just stuff that most people do on a day to day basis but never think about. Contagion definitely makes you think twice about grabbing the handrail on your way out of the theater, but I wish that tension and fear of the unknown stuck with the film the whole time.
The first hour is really good stuff. It’s scary without using blood or gore, instead long and empty shots of the deceased infected. The music keeps the tension going and the main characters are interesting enough to want to follow, but then it sort of sets course for nowhere and bounces around without anything to show for it. Side characters become completely pointless and scenes feel longer than they actually are. When your film is about a virus taking over the world I don’t think it’s smart to lose your audience because of time wasted on pointless scenes of scientific talk about how they don’t have a cure. How many lab scenes do we need to realize that this virus came out of nowhere and we don’t know what to do about it? The answer is one, but Contagion contains about ten. Twenty or thirty minutes of the film could have easily been cut because it just consists of doctors talking about trying to cure the virus with a mixture of news briefs and riots, none of which further the story.
When the ending finally comes around it doesn’t help recapture that original tension at all. It instead wraps the whole thing up in about two minutes and it felt like an extreme cop out and last minute whip up. I can understand if the point of the film was to just note that things like this just sort of happen and the characters of the film do all tie together, but come on you could have done something a little cleverer. You made me sit through thirty minutes of good quality character building followed by another hour of pointless globetrotting to reach this bullshit ending?
I liked elements of Contagion a lot and I really wish it could have pulled itself together. The acting is perfect, from the necessary characters. The camerawork is great, which is something you’ve come to expect from Soderbergh and the music is really different and unique, but the slowdown in act two followed by the fuck you in act three really makes it hard to recommend Contagion to anyone. It’s not a horrible film by any means, but it could have been so much more. I think it all boils down to the writing. The material just wasn’t strong enough and not even an impressive crew lead by one talented director could save it. I’m hoping Haywire backs my theory because it would really suck to see Soderbergh drop the ball numerous times before taking his rumored leave from film.
Contagion – 7.5/10