Movie Review: Contagion

Between SARS, Avian Flu, Mad Cow, and a handful of other recent outbreak panics, it’s fair to say that the fear of a devastating pandemic is running high. Of course, the failure of any of those panics to bring huge body counts probably means that our level of attention to other diseases is on the wane.

There’s a lot to like about Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, from the impressive scale to the fantastic cast, it’s an incredibly interesting bird’s eye view of a deadly pandemic. But with that immense sense of scale, the film also sacrifices the human element that would help ground the story. There are pieces of it here, especially in the story of Mitch (Matt Damon), who struggles with a horrific loss, the breakdown of society, and a rapidly maturing daughter. Damon’s scenes give Contagion the gravitas such a story demands, unfortunately, there just don’t seem to be a enough of them in this massive, sprawling film.

Pictured: The Shit Hitting the Fan

The film begins with Damon’s wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, returning from a business trip in Hong Kong. Her health rapidly deteriorates, and she’s dead in the hospital in no time. But this isn’t the last we see of the character. One of the other strengths of Contagion is how it tracks this character to try to determine the source of the outbreak, sprinkling in little bits of information here and there, and from the perspectives of the film’s many, many characters.

The film primarily tracks the efforts of various people as they try to understand, track, and ultimately contain the outbreak. While these make for pretty interesting viewing, they also tend to be a little dry at times.

Another subplot centers around a character (Jude Law) who is peddling his own brand of cure for the disease, while also opening denouncing government efforts and inciting panic as he goes. This was a potentially  interesting story that sadly got lost amid all the various characters and plots in the film. I always like seeing plots about the people who profit off horrible circumstances, how they sell it to the public, how they justify it to themselves, and how things end up shaking out. It’s a shame this didn’t have more time to play out.

Contagion was a decent to good film that, with a lot more focus, could have been both deeply affecting and deeply unsettling. I walked away from the film more disappointed at the wasted potential than anything else.

Grade: 3 zombie heads out of 5

26 Comments

Dave

Nice on, Miles.

Yeah, I don’t tend to do LDD stuff. I’m just not a fan of how they look for the most part.

Dave

Yeah, it probably is. The plot isn’t terribly intricate, so it doesn’t demand all of your attention.

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Louise

***HERE BE SPOILERS***

I really liked Contagion. I actually preferred the dry, somewhat documentary feel rather than the other way it could have gone. Imagine if it had been Spielberged! *SHUDDER* The bits with Matt Damen were just about enough for me (I could have coped with a bit more, but not too much of a glurge-fest).

The Jude Law subplot is one I think could have been fleshed out more, or at least resolved in a more satisfactory matter. I mean, what is going to happen to him after the end of the film? The FBI sting that got him arrested didn’t really go anywhere in the end, and I got the impression he was going to get sued by people in lots of civil law suits – but it didn’t really make it that clear. I wanted to see him slung in jail for a very long time!

The bit when Kate Winslet’s character got ill and eventually died had moments that were human. Not so much the blanket scene (when she dies), but little things like the other CDC worker’s reaction when they are burying her in a mass grave. I must admit, I thought Kate Winslet would miraculously survive — you always get one person who gets sick, but manages to fight off the virus (in real life as well as the movies, although it happens more often in movies!) — but no, it wasn’t that sort of film!

Overall I think the film did an excellent job of showing people trying to do a difficult, almost impossible, task under very difficult circumstances… not always getting it right, because they are ultimately human, but not being the Evil Obstructive Uncaring Scientific Bureaucracy they are so often depicted as being in these sorts of films.

And I’m never touching my face with my unwashed hands ever again!

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Dave

Hah, I thought Winslet would miraculously survive too, Louise.

The bit with Law’s character could have been so much more. I think the movie was trying to show us that he had the connections to weasle out of any sort of criminal charges (although this could have been clearer), but I also wonder about civil litigation. I’d imagine there would be scores of it.

I don’t mind dry documentaries, so maybe this was more a case of incorrect expectations than anything else.

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Yatkuu

Haha, yeah no face touching ! How many times did she say a human being touches his own face on average per day? I only remember it was an absurdly high figure but I assume it can only be true.

I fully agree with what you said Louise, it was a decent movie overall. The documentary aspect was I think very true to how things might play out if it was for real. The fiction aspects / human sides of the story were mostly ok I guess. The kid’s death in the beginning literally left me speechless. It’s very rare to see a child’s death depicted so brutally on screen. I also very impressed with the rioting scenes, we are “used” to see this taking place in third world locations.. not on US soil.
Another good idea, the info leak on FaceBook from the CDC representative’s wife. It’s easy to blame her, but on the other hand I remember asking myself what would I do in such a situation.. interesting dilemma.

On a side note, I went to see this movie with my wife who had a bad cough at that time… we had good laughs thinking about everyone else in the theatre while she was coughing… even better than the 3D!

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Yatkuu

A few years ago in the Disney theme parks they used to play a movie called “Honey, I Shrunk The Audience” it was a successor to the 3D Captain Eo movie. The movie was not just in 3D there were special effects played live in the theatre.. the chairs were shaking, you had wind in your face and other stuff. At some point in the story, one of the characters sneezed towards the camera and in the room you had a drizzle thrown at the audience… I remember it was very a very disturbing sensation!

Dave

I remember Honey I Shrunk the Audience. It was awesome. As was their Star Tours ride.

Yatkuu

Oh yeah Star Tours was awesome… I heard that it was recently revamped with a new story based on the first trilogy… you seen it already?

Dave

No, I haven’t been to Disney in a good 15 years or so. When the kids get a little older, perhaps.

Angelina

I was really scared to see this movie. I was really wigged when I saw The Stand and I didn’t think I could handle it.

After reading this, I think I’ll give it try.

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Bo

Let me share with you how realistic Contagion is (right up until the last act, natch): I did a nursing internship (capstone project) with the local county health department. I was working with the infectious disease nurses, tracking and treating tuberculosis and hepatitis B, mostly; but we were prepared for other diseases, too. At the end of the semester, we went over the state and county’s emergency preparedness plans (they center around earthquakes, but infectious disease such as an avian influenza or weaponized anthrax are in the plan, too). At the end of an all-day drill, we watched Contagion to remind ourselves what we are planning for.

The first two acts of Contagion are spot-on. Plan for overwhelmed health departments. Plan for hospital staff that will flat-out refuse to go to work. Know that there will be confusion, panic, and misinformation that will lead to riots. The difference between real-life and the movie is that at the end, things just won’t spring back to normal; and I don’t plan on any miracle vaccines in six months.

Sooner or later a bug will find a way to wipe out a huge portion of the population, whether and MDR (that’s “multi-drug resistant” for you, Dave) bacteria, like tuberculosis, or a new mutant virus. It’s just the law of averages.

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Dave

That’s absolutely terrifying, Bo. And I should have pointed out the miracle vaccine and how unrealistic that was in the review. Good call on that.

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Bo

By comparison, zombies are easier. Still, if you use a zombie apocalypse as the impetus to get your house in order, you’ll be more ready for a pandemic event.

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Dave

Yes indeed.

Speaking of which, would you by any chance be interested in doing a guest blog on the subject of using zombies as an impetus for general disaster preparations? I’ve read through your blog, and obviously your comments here. You certainly seem knowledgeable and well-written on the subject.

Bo

I’m studying for NCLEX now; but email me what you’re thinking about; and I can put something together in the next month or so. I tend to be software-driven over hardware-driven (what’s between your ears counts for more than what’s in your closet); and attitude is a big part of that.

I think your comic is brilliant. It brings together my love of LEGO and zombies. I continue to look forward to the characterization, especially; and have found the personalities of the characters realistic (that is, I love to see the sheep panic and stampede). Keep that up: regular guys doing regular things in the middle of the end of the world. 😉

AC

hey i love zombie movies, but the only zombie movie my parents will let me see is I am legend. thats a problem.

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