Fear Itself: Contagion

Steven Soderbergh, arguably one of the more interesting—and certainly among the most prolific—of modern American directors, attempts to give the virus-outbreak film a new sheen, but doesn’t actually add much to the conversation (as it were). Written by Scott Z. Burns, who also penned Soderbergh’s silly 2008 comedy The Informant!, Contagion tells of an avian-like flu emanating from Hong Kong, a contact-driven airborne virus that affects the respiratory system and causes a grotesque foaming at the mouth before killing the recipient.

Patient zero is a jarringly makeup-free Gwyneth Paltrow, on holiday in southeast Asia. We meet her on day two—in a sprawling metropolis that looks somewhat ethnically stereotyped to be a wretched hive of scum and… well, not quite villainy, but contamination at least—as she’s already showing the debilitating symptoms of the as-yet-unknown disease. Over the next 100 or so minutes, the film tracks life on the planet over the next 150-plus days before eventually re-winding to the incept date, when a bat drops a piece of fruit into a pig-sty; the animal (well, part of it) is later served to the virus’ first victim. The film’s gratuitously star-studded cast is ridiculous. Like a ’70s disaster pic—think The Towering Inferno or the long-running Airport franchise—transplanted to 2011, there are almost too many famous and semi-famous faces here to count: Paltrow’s distressed, quarantined widower is merely the first in a long line. Played by a chunky-looking Matt Damon, he is the film’s central character and is intended as something of an audience surrogate (or at least someone with whom we’re meant to identify, as hard as that is).

The loss of his wife, whose autopsy occasions the film’s most graphic scene, becomes the jumping-off point for what is, in the event, a pandemic of global proportions. He’s joined along the way by Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, and the increasingly recognisable character actor Enrico Colantoni, who play CDC and WHO officials of various stripes. John Hawkes pops up as a janitor concerned about his son’s ADHD (but also the virus, obvs.), and Bryan Cranston pokes his head in the room briefly as some sort of DHS officer. Unfunny comedian Demetri Martin and the underappreciated actress Jennifer Ehle are CDC lab-rats working alongside Dr. Ian Sussman (a memorable turn from Elliott Gould; as flippant a role as he’s been given, it great to see him back on the big screen). But wait, there’s more: Kate Winslet has a major role as an official drafted by the CDC to liase with federal and state agencies (among them FEMA and other governmental bodies) in order to understand and control the spread of the disease. She’s also a source for media sound-bites, and attempts to keep misinformation to a minimum, which is where…

…Jude Law comes in. More irritating in this film than he has been in years, his buck-toothed, cockney/Australian-accented blogger extraordinaire features prominently in an ultimately stupid subplot about a possible homeopathic remedy. (Here, the film gets in many ill-advised digs at “the blogosphere.”) Winslet’s cool, calm and collected official stands in stark contrast to Law’s YouTube-enabled rants and cries of corruption and censorship from on-high. The clear-eyed, documentarylike fashion in which the film is shot creates an initially exciting (hyper)realism, but this quickly fades once you start to hear the shoddiness of the script. The inclusion of media reports in an audio-only capacity—that is to say, we don’t see TV reports, only hear them—is an interesting choice, and, with the clarity of some of the security-camera footage reviewed by Cotillard’s official, lends technology a welcome higher importance.

For a film that is nominally as much about the rate of grisly infection as it is about the unattended proliferation of fear itself, the politics of misinformation and corporate and governmental interference too often take a back seat to mindless pure entertainment: the grim spectre of death is continually hovering over the alternate near-future of Contagion, but the zombielike ghost-streets and mass graves that start to bleed into the narrative in the third act feel all too familiar—and not just from virus-outbreak movies. An undercooked subplot about Cotillard’s character being kidnapped and removed to a small village (in order for her to be used to barter for the first wave of antibodies and cures) is, for example, dropped and picked up again seemingly at random. Much of the film is concerned with substandard suspense, and what’s more, some of the dialogue is truly moronic. “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird-flu: the birds are already doing that,” sputters Fishburne’s guy-in-a-suit. Later, in the film’s penultimate scene, as he’s talking with John Hawkes and preparing an antidote for his son, Fishburne is given (something like) the following dumb line: explaining that “in the old days, people used to shake hands to show they weren’t carrying a weapon—I wonder if the virus knows that.” To make matters worse, at film’s end, with his daughter safe from harm (she was kept quarantined) and many thousands of people around the world six feet under, Damon’s protagonist sets about deleting the photos of his dead wife from the family’s digital camera. Downstairs, he’s set up a faux prom for his teen-age daughter and her recently-certified-virus-free boyfriend; playing on the stereo is U2’s “All I Want is You.” Yech. Cliff Martinez, who composed such great, perfectly atmospheric music for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, here creates a grating sonic landscape that persists like a ringing in your ear.

From the underrated The Girlfriend Experience to last year’s Spalding Gray documentary farewell, And Everything is Going Fine, Soderbergh’s recent work has tended toward the experimental. If Contagion and Haywire (his other 2011 film) signal a return to traditional narrative, it is only a structural one: Contagion, at least, is still as visually alive and dazzlingly composed—the director is, once again, his own cinematographer—as were his last five pictures. No, the problem here is not so much in the film’s aesthetic construction, but in its lack of ambition: why crowd out a picture like this with umpteen name actors but give them nothing smart or particularly compelling to say, or so ‘been there, done that’ a world to inhabit?

Contagion is in cinemas today.