Despite having worked in a hospital for the past five years, I’m really not much of a germaphobe. I just can’t work up the energy to sanitize every single little thing I touch—those are precious seconds that I could be spending reading h/c Sherlock fanfiction or playing Text Twist on Yahoo. I wash my hands and all, but I only use Sani-Wipes when I have to clean medical equipment for nurses.
That being said, after watching this movie?
. . . well, I’m still not really a germaphobe. But after the film was over, I may have washed my hands for thirty seconds longer than strictly necessary.
A illness of mysterious origins pops up and rapidly becomes a global pandemic. Various Oscar winners die, lose loved ones, profit from, or try to contain/cure this new disease.
Gwyneth Paltrow gets sick and infects the entire world.
1. Contagion is a pretty good movie that unfortunately stops short of being a terrific movie for various reasons. What it does do extremely well, however, is create a realistic and frightening vision of what an outbreak of this scale would look like today. Everyone remember this movie?
This is one of my very favorite guilty pleasure movies. It’s entertaining as hell, and it stars almost as many Oscar nominees as Contagion. That being said, realism? Realism is hell and gone from this movie. Realism doesn’t want anything to do with this movie and its ridiculous helicopter standoffs.
Contagion, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on gigantic action scenes, mustache-twirling villains, or
idiotic sweeping romantic gestures in order to sell the story. Contagion doesn’t even have a main protagonist, much less a hero in a race against time to save the world! Instead, tension is built by showing how quickly and how easily this disease can spread from one person to another. Steven Soderbergh does a brilliant job scaring the crap out of the audience just by filming people touch stuff.
2. And maybe you’re thinking, well, without stirring speeches and helicopter chases and Donald Sutherland hamming it up, Contagion is bound to be a bit on the slow side. Well, if that’s what you’re thinking . . . honey, let me tell you: it’s the other way around. Contagion hits the ground running and never lets up. Its pacing is relentless, jumping from one storyline to the next, all the way to the very end of the film. For the first 2/3 of this movie, that pacing works pretty well. In the last forty minutes . . . not so much.
3. We have to talk about this cast, this ridiculous, epic cast. Let me just list all of them.
Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Enrico Colantoni, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston.
Good God. That’s a lot of talent in the room.
4. It’s also a lot of storylines to juggle. On one hand, I think having so many characters really allows the audience to get a clear sense of scope on just how devastating this pandemic is. It’s really a very ambitious project. Even the “main” characters don’t get a lot of screen time, certainly not in comparison to protagonists in other films.
On the other hand, though, I think certain storylines suffer because there is often just too much going on. The most obvious example is Marion Cotillard’s storyline, which starts off fine and then is abruptly dropped off the face of the earth for the better part of an hour. Elliott Gould’s character does what he’s supposed to do and then is just gone—there’s no mention of him for the rest of the film. Matt Damon probably gets the most screen time overall, but the breakneck pace of the film doesn’t really allow his character the chance to grieve for most of the movie.
This film does have some decently affecting moments . . . one death, in particular, is very well done . . . but something’s just missing at the heart of it, something that makes me feel distanced from the outcome. I appreciate that the story isn’t overly schmaltzy or sentimental, but I also feel myself wishing I was more invested in these people’s lives. Contagion definitely connects on the intellectual level, but I don’t think it always connect on the human one.
5. If I had to pick a few of my personal standouts, though . . . I think I’d go with Jennifer Ehle, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law. We will now spend a little time talking about Jude Law’s character because he is, in fact, a total shitweasel.
Jude Law isn’t quite the villain of Contagion. The disease is the real villain, the foe that needs to be conquered. Jude Law is more like the Total Schmuck of the movie, the guy you just want to punch in the face. Repeatedly.
I expect a few bloggers out there won’t look too kindly on this film, which frankly doesn’t have time to give a balanced account of hardworking, ethical bloggers versus inflammatory motherfuckers who don’t know what they’re taking about. The only thing said on the subject is this: “Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation.” Of course, that’s just one character’s opinion, not, like, the thesis of the film. But since the only blogger, Alan (Law), is also an immoral asshole . . . I can see how some people might be offended.
Me . . . not so much. Hell, I laughed at the line. It’s a clever line, even if I don’t personally agree with it. Then again, I’m a movie blogger, not a news blogger. I don’t have to get in the middle of the “what constitutes real journalism” argument, at least not yet. (Maybe in the future, where my general apathy towards the subject will probably bite me in the ass.)
As a moviegoer, Alan’s character works for me for a couple of reasons. One, I completely believe there are people out there—bloggers included—that would exploit a situation as horrible as the one in Contagion in order for money, power, and respect. Two, Jude Law is just so convincing as an evil little shit that even though Alan isn’t terribly three-dimensional, he works for me here. I just wanted to climb into the screen and beat him over the head with a really large brick.
And . . . huh. I just realized that this is quite The Talented Mr. Ripley reunion, isn’t it? Man, I disliked that movie. Loved Matt Damon’s performance, hated the story. Anyway. Moving on.
6. Like I said before, I think the storyline falters 2/3 of the way into the film. (The third act is so troubling for so many movies.) In fact, I think I even know the moment where I start having problems. While I can’t really tell you what that moment is without giving away spoilers, I think a pivotal plot point happens too fast and everything that follows just isn’t given enough time to develop. Instead of being relentlessly exciting, the movie just starts feeling like it’s running out of time, and the only way I can think of to fix that is to cut out one or two of the twelve different storylines.
7. I kind of wish there was at least one more big name death in this movie. Not just for shock value—although, shock value is not without merit—but mostly because I would’ve liked to have seen more emphasis placed on what one human can do to another when survival is on the line. Contagion does take some time to show a few instances of rioting and looting, but there’s rarely any tension in these scenes. You never really feel like the characters are in danger, and that actually might have helped me connect more to the piece emotionally.
8. One of the bravest things this movie does is show the face of a dead child. I’m not saying that this is unheard of in film, obviously, but often movies will choose to show, like, a hanging arm or something. And that’s fine, really . . . I’m not looking to constantly stare at dead children because, hey, depressing. No one needs that. But the shot works well here, bold without being gratuitous, and I appreciated it here.
9. In general, I really like how Soderbergh shot this movie. It was very crisp, clean, direct. There were a lot of close-ups that gave the film a sort of stark quality that I thought served the story well.
10. Finally, Matt Damon has a teenage daughter, and she’s not an awful little shit the entire time? Unfathomable.
Hollywood, let this be a trend.
I will now go through the entire film, one storyline at a time.
This movie begins on Day 2, where Gwyneth Paltrow is already sick and coming home from Hong Kong.
She’s killed off pretty quickly, though she comes back for some flashbacks. I was particularly impressed with both of her seizure scenes. (And point of advice, Matt Damon. When you’re trying to keep your wife from cracking her head open on the kitchen floor, don’t just tell your six year old stepson to go in the other room. Tell him to call 911 in the other room. That’s what my mom did with my sister when I had seizures. The kid probably won’t give the best report, but trust me: the paramedics still come.)
Anyway, Gwyneth dies, and her kid does too. It’s sad. Matt Damon’s kid, Jory, isn’t home when all this is going on, so she never gets exposed. They quarantine Damon for awhile, but he turns out to be immune. They aren’t so sure about Jory, so he spends the rest of the movie keeping her locked up in their house and away from everyone, including her boyfriend, who is surprisingly kind of sweet. Finally, Matt Damon stages a little prom for them in his living room after Jory’s boyfriend gets the vaccine, and it’s sort of adorable. Damon also has a nice moment where he looks down at Gwyneth Paltrow’s pictures and breaks down quietly in his bedroom . . . but it’s just been so long since Paltrow’s even been mentioned. It’s a good scene, but I wished the movie had a little more balance dealing with his whole emotional arc.
Laurence Fishburne is the head of the CDC. He sends Kate Winslet to, um, Chicago maybe? Well, some city, anyway. She has a number of unpleasant duties, like dealing with city level bureaucrats who are reluctant to spend money on another H1N1-type scare, or telling Matt Damon that his wife was cheating on him before she died. Winslet isn’t terribly personable here—even with the stress of the job, you get the idea that her character might not have the best social skills—but when she gets sick, man, do you feel sorry for her. Winslet’s phenomenal here as she tries to keep it together, despite her obvious terror. She’s the other big name in this movie who dies, and the shot of her in a body bag in the mass grave is one of the most affecting shots in the whole film.
The government wants to work on a vaccine, but they can’t isolate . . . I don’t know, something . . . and until they do, not much can really be done. Fishburne is worried that if private, non-government labs work on the virus, there will be even more exposure. So he has Dr. Jennifer Ehle order Dr. Elliott Gould to stop working on isolating whatever. Gould stops for approximately five minutes before starting right back up again. I was sure he was only going to make things worse somehow, but actually, his character figures out what no one else can . . . something about bat DNA, maybe? Clearly, science wasn’t one of my stronger subjects in school.
Once Elliott Gould has made his little rebellious discovery, the CDC gets to work on a vaccine, and Gould disappears for the rest of the film. If the whole story was formatted like a relay race, where one character passes the torch to the next character and so on . . . maybe Gould’s vanishing act might work. But he’s really the only big name who gets completely dropped from the story. Even Marion Cotillard gets some amount of
really crappy resolution.
Ah, Cottilard. She works for the World Health Organization, I believe, and she goes to Hong Kong to determine that Gwyneth Paltrow is Patient Zero. She doesn’t know how Paltrow got infected, unfortunately, and before she can fly back home, she’s kidnapped by some villagers who want to ransom her for a vaccine. At the time that she’s kidnapped, I don’t think there even is a vaccine yet, which is probably why she disappears for an entire hour of the movie. When Contagion finally remembers that, oh yeah, we never did anything with that French girl’s story . . . whoops . . . we find that Cotillard has been spending her time teaching the village school children. How precious. This ten second shot allows the audience to see that she’s bonded with these people, even though they’ve kidnapped her. Eventually, a vaccine is made, and she gets to go home . . . except that, while waiting at the airport, Cotillard discovers that the vaccine the villagers were given is actually a placebo. She runs through the airport, racing back to the villagers, and . . . that’s it. That’s the end of her storyline. What exactly she’s going to do when she gets there, I’m not sure, but it’s a pretty crappy way to wrap up her story, and it makes her whole role in this movie fairly unnecessary.
Who else? Okay, well, back to Lawrence Fishburne for a bit. He’s been having a number of problems himself. While telling the public to stay home and keep themselves isolated, he secretly tells his girlfriend to get the hell out of Chicago . . . a conversation that janitor John Hawkes overhears and shames him for. (Fishburne later gives his vaccine dose to Hawkes’s son, which is really quite sweet, but also continues to prove that he lacks for something when it comes to objectivity.) Fishburne’s girlfriend warns her friend with one of those “you can’t tell anyone” promises that never, ever works. So it’s no surprise when Evil Little Shit Jude Law finds out and exposes Fishburne on national television.
Besides pissing off Fishburne, Evil Little Shit Jude Law also blogs about the cure he’s supposedly found and the government conspiracy to keep it from the public. The cure is some homeopathic remedy called forsythia, and he convinces the world that it works by posting a video of himself taking it while sick and then more videos when he’s all cured. People actually riot at pharmacies when it’s no longer available. Problem is, forsythia doesn’t work at all. Evil Little Shit Jude Law was never actually sick in the first place, and he makes millions from the people who manufacture the product. Government agent Enrico Colantoni eventually arrests him, but he makes bail because a lot of people still believe in him. Law’s storyline just sort of ends with him taking pictures of stuff. There’s definitely a lack of payoff here. You really want someone to beat the shit out of him . . . but he’s just sort of walking around, you know, looking at stuff. It’s left very open-ended if his supporters will save him from being convicted . . . but not open-ended in a good way, open-ended like they just sort of stopped writing. Clearly, resolution is a major problem in this film for various storylines.
Let’s see . . . okay, so then there’s Jennifer Ehle. She thinks that she may have discovered the vaccine, but because the situation is so dire, she doesn’t have time to go through all the normal animal to human testing stuff. So she tests the vaccine on herself and visits her sick father (who is a doctor himself and became ill when he wouldn’t leave his patients). It’s really a very touching scene, and Ehle’s quite good in it, very understated.
The problem with the vaccine, though, is that it seems to come out of nowhere. You know that they’re working on it, but you don’t really see them working on it very much, so the discovery itself seems exceptionally sudden. And that might work, up to a point, but the rest of the film starts to wobble and falter heavily once the vaccine’s been discovered. I like that finding the vaccine isn’t the end of the film, that the serious problem of distributing it to everyone becomes the focus of the third act . . . but it almost doesn’t seem strong enough, like the whole process gets rushed. Like, you know, we’re coming up on two hours, folks. Time to wrap it up. I know this whole lottery system we’ve set up is pretty intriguing, but we’re quickly getting to the 120 minute mark, so let’s just drop it like it’s hot, yeah?
The actual ending of the film goes backwards in time, and you see how Gwyneth Paltrow contracted the disease. At first, I thought it was unnecessary, but I quickly came around on the subject. For one, it’s just sort of creepy to see how easy it was for this whole disaster scenario to start. For another, ending on Day One actually made for a very successful framing device, giving the film the solid ending that so many of the individual storylines themselves lacked.
Creepy and ambitious, but lacking something in, I don’t know, heart? Wonderfully shot, acted well, surprisingly realistic . . . but some problems with pacing and serious problems with resolution.
Kate Winslet (But that’s really tough. The acting in this movie is excellent all around.)
Trust the government. Also, wash your godamned hands.