Sunday, September 11, 2011
Contagion (2011) (Review)
I enjoyed Contagion (2011), but was struck – at several times – that it could have been a much better movie. Steven Soderbergh has a history of handling large ensemble casts, and he does a deft job in finding almost all of the actors some decent screen time and meaningful roles. The film looks good, for the most part. Sure, the diseased look anywhere from mildly splotchy (a rash is never described as a symptom) to sweaty with dried oatmeal on their lips, but as (surprisingly) so little time is spent with the ill it doesn't detract much from the story.
The coda to the story feels very heavy-handed, a mixture of the lessons to be learned from unchecked corporate expansion (greed?) and lack of regulatory oversight. It has no real place with the rest of the story, and I am going to interpret it instead as an attempt to link the how did this happen? to the initial people infected. It still plays a little false, but it is more satisfactory that way.
I also think – and this is definitionally nitpicking – that the Minnesota houses in the film had way too much glass. Having not spent a lot of time in Minnesota, I can't say that this is true, but I do know that cold climate plus lots of glass equals giant heating bills. The Minnesota of the film looked a little Canadian, as though suburban Minneapolis were Bailey Downs.
Most of the cast is superb. Gwyneth Paltrow isn't given much to do other than look ill, which is a shame because she can act. Matt Damon, as her unemployed husband Mitch, gives a solid performance. Mitch is our everyman in the story, though he is more of a witness to the events and his sense of fear – after the passing of his wife and step-son – is what may befall his daughter. Sometimes he seems confused when he shouldn't be, but he had a reliable moral compass and is quite relatable.
Laurence Fishburne's character, Dr. Ellis Cheever, is a little all over the place in the beginning of the story. I imagine he is supposed to be a people person who has mastered interpersonal skills for handling his people in the field, but this starts off as inefficacious. Eventually the strengths of his character emerge, but by that time the story has introduced characters more worthy of the audience's attention. Working with Dr. Cheever are Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle). Both are much more interesting, as characters, than Cheever. Winslet is excellent (of course), but her character is a little underdeveloped – is she just starting this kind of work? – and the arc of her story, while probable, isn't very satisfying. Hextall, on the other hand, is like some kind of beautiful DaVinci or Edison, and she sees through most of the CDC efforts that Cheever is supposedly directing. On the World Health Organization (WHO) side, Marion Cotillard is strong as Dr. Leonora Orantes, but her character is undercut by being taken out of the story for months (a time period where her character would be more interesting to follow than Damon's).
Jude Law gets ample screen time as villainous blogger Alan Krumwiede. It is unclear as to when he turns from self-aggrandizing egomaniac (and conspiracy theorist) to an agent against the survival of humanity, but it definitely is tied to the hedge funds people. Law has been much better than this, but he isn't bad. He doesn't draw the audience out of the story of make us believe he isn't that character. His interactions with people – the times when he isn't justifying himself – are weaker than most of the other scenes, but maybe that is because Krumwiede doesn't really relate to other people.
TV regulars Bryan Cranston and Enrico Colantoni have screen time as government officials. Cranston plays an Admiral who doesn't know how to stand at attention (yes, his rocking back in forth while the character was supposed to be standing motionless behind Dr. Cheever took me out of the moment) an
doesn't come of a someone who has the political acumen to have reached his position. Colantoni doesn't provide the kind of weight or gravitas that his character's position demands, and some scenes do suffer because of that.
The outbreaks? Well, they are small and the audience gets more of the fear of something being out there than the deadly virus/disease itself. There are government officials who know more than they are willing to share, but they aren't the CDC or WHO people that Krumwiede suspects (and that angle is never investigated in the film). For how bad things are supposedly getting – fires smolder without attention from the fire department and police stop showing up for work – power and water aren't affected. Twitter and the blogosphere are active in full force. The rioting presented is extremely mild and small in scope. There is no mention as to what is happening with the prison populations (this seems like a wasted opportunity to showcase American attitudes toward the criminal class). People are murdered in their homes without police follow-up, but they still pursue speeding cars (at least this is how it seems). The effects felt too sterile, especially in Asia, but I don't want to present it as though I couldn't understand what Soderbergh was going for in terms of effect. It just gives the impression that even though the situation is quite dire, it can always get back to normal in short order.
I think Contagion is a good, not great film. I would give it a solid B+, worth it mostly because of the cast and (in my case) because it does big scale disaster – albeit medical – very well compared to other attempts to tackle the same kind of material.