Contagion: Battling the Invisible Villain

Sep 14, 2011 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Brian Wrote This, Film Reviews, On Writing
I’m remiss in my movie reviewing (new job’s kicking my ass), but two recent films have interested me as challenges to write, as well as to film. Notably, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion was a heady mix of ambition, success and failure.

September is a month of sleeper hits, stuff that’s neither Oscar bait nor big-budget fluff. Art films and low-budget fluff, then. When I get more time, I’ll make it to more screenings for Badmouth.  But right now, with the tragic Conan remake as my most recent review, it kinda looks like one bad film finally chased me away from theaters for good.  It’s not true.  I’ll never quit you, Hollywood!

Helen Mirren, Why Don’t You Return My Calls?

All I’ll say about The Debt is that I’d like to have more Helen Mirren in my Helen Mirren movies, and that just about every quibble I had with the script appears not to have been present in the original Israeli version, according to a synopsis I read online.  It seems that the studio Americanized the storytelling in ways that are … typically, shallowly American.  This is a shame because the sharp writing team of Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) are among the credited writers.  In the end, I liked The Debt, but didn’t love it … and wish I could’ve.

Soderbergh: Brilliant and Daring

Contagion is interesting when viewed as a writing challenge.  The bad guy in the film is a disease, an enemy you can’t see, and can’t punch in the face after it makes a grandiose speech about its evil plans, so it’s difficult to make the film interesting in the most basic cinematic way.  Of course, you can still do an interesting story–there are great stories set during wartime that deal with individuals and don’t actually resolve the war, right?  But because the filmmakers want to really take a broad, multifaceted look at a global pandemic, the film can’t focus on one person’s struggles.  It has to survey the crisis from a variety of angles.

Writer Scott Z. Burns did a really good job of this, but a lot of the success is down to Steven Soderbergh’s masterful camerawork, which creates intense tension at the start of the film as the epidemic starts.  It is always a pleasure to watch Soderbergh work.

Individual Trains Running Off Their Rails

The movie loses some steam as the epidemic peaks.  The story moves along, mostly, but the way the film sets up and resolves its mini-conflicts never quite hits the mark.  Matt Damon loses his wife to the plague (she’s patient zero), and son, and spends the film trying to protect his daughter, both from the disease and the chaos that erupts as civil order breaks down.  That’s a great way to use the epidemic not as adversary, but as arena.  Let smaller conflicts play out on this tense, horrible stage.  But though Damon’s conflict contains many sharply drawn, well-acted, realistic moments, in the end we simply see whether he survives or not.  A larger conflict, a sense of story rather than events, doesn’t manifest.  It’s clear from the way his story resolves that his conflict is meant to be about the strain between him and his daughter, but it’s not really there.

Laurence Fishburne is a doctor with the Centers for Disease Control who is involved in managing response to the epidemic.  When the entire city of Chicago is about to be quaranteened, he phones his fiancee and warns her to get out.  This breach of secrecy (it ends up on Facebook) will cost Fishburne his career.  He’s told at least three times that, while they can’t bust him during the epidemic, ’cause he’s needed, there will be a hearing.  Tension?  Well, we never see him wrestle with the decision (good–it’s a no-brainer to risk your career to save a loved one), and we never see him face the hearing, so the conflict is all middle.  And his doctor-partner, played by Jennifer Ehle, is seeking a cure to the disease, and her decision to use a daringly unorthodox method to save time just … happens, with no buildup, no warning.  What inspired her to this move?  We find out later in a quick scene that should drip emotional impact but instead has none.

Sure, Kill Gwyneth Paltrow, But Don’t Waste Marion Cotillard!

Marion Cotillard disappears for half the movie, victim of a crime, and the filmmakers seem to forget all about her for a long time, and then resolve her little subplot in a way that is, technically, one of the most complete stories in the film–but it’s also the most predictable and least satisfyingly presented.

Bryan Cranston = Joint Chief … I Smell a Network Series!

I applaud Soderbergh and Burns (a credited writer on The Bourne Ultimatum, sole credit for adapting Soderbergh’s The Informant! from the book, The Informant) for taking on this story, and for putting so many nice nuances in it.  (In a brilliant bit of “commentary casting,” the Pentagon appears to be staffed entirely by familiar sitcom actors.  ‘Nuff said.)

There’s a lot more that I liked.  Some of the details of Jude Law’s adventures as a paranoiac blogger zipped by too quickly for me, but overall the film’s portrayal of the Internet’s role in a crisis like this is dead-on, neither ignored nor overdone, and the way blogging and journalism and government and business intersect really made the film feel like it was occurring in a world much larger than the movie screen.  Too many movies are contained by their scripts.  This one felt like there was a much more expansive world, and believing in the film’s world is one of the most important things for a story of this kind.

Steven Soderbergh, Why Don’t You Return My Calls?

I think I liked the film so much, despite this litany of small but meaningful failures, because, a) Soderbergh could direct a fifth-grade Christmas pageant to brilliance, and 2) so many great moments are in the film.  They wanted to make a tense, multifaceted thriller that was extreme while feeling terrifyingly realistic–and they did. We see a well-acted look at a disaster in motion, and the momentum is intense.  But when I add it all up, I have to say that I don’t think the writing quite succeeded against the tremendous challenge inherent in the idea.  And as they come to the final scene, a flashback coda that should be the brilliant capstone on the whole nightmare story, it just feels bland and devoid of impact.

So there you go.  As a viewer I was hooked.  As a writer, I find myself seeing the shortcomings.  Anyone else see this thing yet?

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • Hi Brian,
    Good review. I haven’t seen Contagion yet, but I was wondering, in your opinion, how does it compare to the Dustin Hoffman movie Outbreak? I really like Outbreak, but I don’t know if I’ll like a virus movie on the scale of Contagion.

  • John–Thanks for readin’. I never saw Outbreak, so I can’t compare it. I think Soderbergh is one of the best directors working today, certainly the most interesting to me, so I highly recommend the film just to watch him at work. I outlined my problems with the writing, but I think overall the story clicks along well, and often the choices that lead me to complain also feel more realistic, less overwrought, than films that dramatize the story more. Trouble is, the film IS drama.

    It’s a tense thriller with a lot of good moments. As the tension mounts in the first act, I just constantly wanted to cry, Soderbergh had me so caught up in how AWFUL everything was gonna get. If my criticisms above don’t turn you off, I’d say go, and you’ll enjoy.