I had a really awful experience one time. A few of my buddies got together and I joined them at the movies. We saw Traffic. I guess there was an upside because we earned a new catchphrase. Years to come, whenever we passed under the neon ‘Exit’ sign after a poorly chosen film, someone would say:
“It’s better than Traffic.”
Nearby patrons thought we were making some kind of bumper to bumper reference, but that wasn’t the case. Truly, we’d been scarred, in a large part due to the only guy that wanted to stay for the entirety of Steven Soderberg’s movie. He was the one with car keys, as it happens. We were positive that experience would never be replicated, failing to predict that Crash would go on to win Best Picture years later.
When I heard this year’s Contagion described as being in the same vein as Traffic and Crash, I jumped at the opportunity to review it, mentally adding Babel to that list, though it served better with more distinction for each vignette and more sensitivity paid to the personal. There’s no way I can remain impartial, but does that matter? If a certain style of filmmaking is counter-intuitive to the art form, it doesn’t deserve a handicap. So now, without further adieu, Contagion (It’s better than Traffic).
The setup is pretty straightforward. A movie about issues will appeal to headline hungry Academy voters, performed by slightly less than a dozen well known Hollywood icons. 2011’s Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories will be needlessly cluttered again, with most of the famous faces uglified due to its epidemic plotline, intentionally fixing the odds for awards. Remember what makeup removal did for Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich in that same Supporting category despite Roberts being the film’s title role?
Contagion is crudely self important and, while the characters don’t preach, they’re designed to appeal directly to those in the audience who make themselves aware of modern consequences but aren’t as smart as they think they are. These are Cliffs Notes, not performances. They represent different social statistics in the wake of a hypothetical outbreak and when given a piece of humanity, the actors can’t turn it into something without fleshed-out roles.
There’s no weight to a film this decidedly alien to intimacy, where most of the powerful lines of dialogue are delivered into a cell phone, where most of its characters aren’t aware the others exist. When attempts are made to stand out from the crowd, they’re overshadowed by our thoughts of “Who is this, again?” “Was he in an earlier scene?” and “Wait, what happened to…” as the movie switches gear after gear, somewhat residing permanently in neutral. For the life of me, I couldn’t even detect a purpose to some of these characters, let alone a script meriting five Oscar winners, four more merely nominated, and poor Bryan Cranston with his silly little Emmy (or three).
Naturally, with great paycheck comes great accountability. The recognizable members of Contagion‘s ensemble and its on-the-edge-of-early-retirement maestro make certain that even when a narrative lacks the electric, nothing actually feels off the mark. A laundry list of Presentapocalyptica is being read off by people we still enjoy. There’s no weak link, performance wise, and Jude Law’s rogue blogger takes on a wildly ambiguous nature that becomes crucial to the film’s aim. Every role may not be tied to him but every idea is, particularly when the infectious spread of information parallels the disease at the heart of the film.
On the director’s end, there’s a professional and playful balance of continuity and visual structure. Even the widely recognized misstep of Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris can boast that. Many shapes found in biology are here again in man-made objects and among the controlled landscape of an office park. We are a piece of the world but suicidally dissatisfied by it, with keener eyes than mine required to pick that theme out of this bloated narrative. The danger of meddling with agriculture, but only if you view movies like a microscope.
Perhaps I would have noticed the repeated locations of a company logo, as my chemist friend did, were I not bored by the documentary style presentation. I don’t want a movie to inform me with population numbers or with how many days have gone by. I expect to feel the passing of time. I expect to feel an overpopulated China. Instead, Contagion says “Just the facts, ma’am” while keeping the camera restricted to board rooms, bedrooms, and outdoor crowds under a hundred in count. That’s rather curious for a movie so concerned with the larger populace that it deliberately keeps individuals out of focus.
For a more exciting night of plagues and prophets, read The Bible.
Matthew Razak: – Soderberg masterfully twists this cliche film idea into a taught and tense drama that will not only having you fearing any contact with another human being, but sitting on the edge of your seat. Somehow he makes an incredibly clinical look at how a disastrous epidemic and the ensuing response would unfold if it went down into a meaningful and and personal experience. By focusing in on just a few individuals and letting the rest of the story unfold in the background Soderberg makes a micro experience into a macro one. It is incredibly done with subtle touches that work perfectly (the opening sequence focusing on people touching things is perfect). The only down side is that some of the plethora of story lines don’t go anywhere or seem to be forgotten for most of the film, but the rest make up for it and the ending is subtly open without being blatant like most films of this ilk.