Hello there. This is not a review of Contagion. This is a film-buff’s thoughts and insights on the film. With that in mind, this post proceeds on the assumption that you’ve already seen Contagion: I won’t go into great detail setting up or explaining the plot, and there will be spoilers. Stop now if you are looking for a casual review.
Actually, here is a casual review: go see Contagion. It is intelligent and restrained filmmaking. It is well cast and acted and follows from a pretty good script. It is an exciting story, without having to rely on cheap gimmicks (guns, explosions, exploitation of women, hackneyed reversals, bad CGI, etc.)
This post lacks any sort of structure or editing. Forgive me in advance, but this is the first one I’ve written on film, and I have a lot to say. I promise to calm down in future posts.
I’ll use the actor’s names when referring to their characters. No reason to have to cross-reference with IMDB or Wikipedia.
The Reality of the World and the Story’s Place in that World
One of the main things I appreciate about Contagion, and the basis for its effectiveness, is it’s straightforward, ‘realistic’ nature. We have characters that act like real people. They populate a world that is familiar and filled with the imperfections of the everyday world we all kick around in. Granted, the context is a bit larger in Contagion: you want the special isolation jet? Can’t have, its been rerouted for a Senator. You want to tell the sick guy to get off the bus? He’ll fight you, and then proceed to touch every visible surface and cough on every single passenger on his way out. But yeah, that’s the life we all know: not really fair nor considerate.
I think that is a hallmark of a believable story: you have a story that exists within the framework of a reality. The arc of that story is shaped and defined by the rules and laws particular to that reality. The more faithful the story is to the context of the world, the more tightly it integrates into what we are viewing (or more generally, experiencing, if we are talking about books) and the more apt we are to believe it and become emotionally involved. In order to accomplish this, a lot of importance is placed on the writer / creator understanding the underlying nature and rules of the world: if the story exists outside of its environment, the audience will feel like it is being lied to. The story feels phony. (More on this in a separate post, because it is an interesting and important topic that I can go on about at some length: it applies not only drama and “real world” scenarios, but also to sci-fi, action, and animation. )
The stories in Contagion sit neatly within their world. Actions and reactions feel genuine. Extraordinary things happen, but when they do, it makes sense, because the movie respects and understands the rules of the world in which the story is unfolding: the reality of human nature and bureaucracy (which is the more mundane parts of human nature amplified) within a period of slow-motion calamity. Just as much as any one character in Contagion acts on its environment, its environment acts on the characters.
The simple rules that dictate Contagion’s world are these: take the world as we currently know it. Now, introduce a lethal disease with an R-nought value of X and an extremely fast incubation, maturation and nasty outcome. Set-up the characters who we will follow through it. Now, what happens? At the risk of oversimplifying, charting the course of the narrative at that point it is simple physics. (Yeah, I am ignoring pacing, an ear for dialog, a deep understanding of human nature, actors and actresses etc etc etc etc. I said it was an oversimplification, but just keep following my thinking …)
The obvious example of this interplay of story and environment is Kate Winslet: she’s out and about, investigating in the thick of it, so it would make sense she’d get infected sooner or later. OK, that’s pretty easy. We’ll buy it. We won’t like it: she’s a likable character with moxy but eh, shit happens in this real world.
The fall-out of Winslet getting sick leads to a more subtle play of character vs. world rules, which is why Contagion feels “real”. Winslet is good at what she does. Fishborne sent her into the field cause he trusts her to do the right thing, and obviously cares about her as a worker and human. Once she falls ill, he wants to help her but try as he might, Fishbourne is unable to get Winslet out of the field and back into professional care. Nurses are striking. Hospitals are overrun or shut-down. Travel is limited or at a stand-still to help prevent spread of disease. The CDC’s contagion airplane is being used by a Senator. So what happens to Winslet? She gets tossed in with the other poor slobs at the converted ice rink. And what happens to poor slobs at the ice rink? They don’t get blankets, they don’t get good care, and waa laa. They die. Exuent Winslet. That’s grim stuff for movies, treating your characters indifferently and at the whim of the environment. In this case it feels 'true’ exactly because it is indifferent. The rules of the world dictated the outcome.
Sort of a “path of least resistance” in the narrative flow.
Tension Without Drama
As the movie progressed I felt the tension in myself ratcheting up. I could explain this in many ways: I was buying more and more into the world and the reality of the situation, I was getting more emotionally involved with the characters, the disease was widespread and therefore was everywhere, the collapse of society had created dangers at every corner, etc. All of those are probably true.
Also, to paraphrase (poorly) from Jaws: “the only time I was scared was when they were picking us out of the water.” You are near the end: bowing out at the finish line would suck.
But the base reason I got tense is something different. I think it was this: there was never a cathartic moment of emotional release.
A lot of movies have set pieces, reversals, loud quiet loud. First act, second act, third act, and we’re out. Contagion was paced and executed far more subtly: the story kept grinding on. It was all progression, no resolution. Again, this is in keeping with real world rules: nothing really ever “ends”. Things keep going, life keeps oozing forward. Hollywood largely ignores those rules. Cell phones ring at perfect times, the killer shows up in the coffee shop at the opportune moment, the hero never gets shot but still manages to kill dozens. Surveillance cameras see everything. The computer always resolves the image. The action stops, everyone takes a breather.
In Contagion, for the last 40 minutes, I was expecting some type of catharsis. The movie seemed to get quieter and quieter. Inversely, my expectation of an explosion or gunshot increased. My brain was waiting for a landmark event, some exclamation point in the flow. It never came.
To illustrate that, let’s look at the creation of the vaccine. Jennifer Ehle stands in front of a row of caged monkeys (as Dr. Ally Hextall, great casting: she exudes “brilliant enigmatic detached creative genius with wry humor”). All of the monkeys are dead, except number 37. Ehle stands there quietly in her puffy bubble suit, still as a rock, with a small smile on her face. Cut to: she injects herself. She develops no terrible contraindications, her eyeballs don’t pop out, no vomiting out a kidney. She talks to her dad. She’s just saved tens of millions of lives. What? The movie doesn’t celebrate this? Most movies would; its a really easy emotional moment. Instead, we jump to the next problem: manufacturing and distribution. A lottery drum of birthdays. Even Fishbourne asks Ehle, who is later quietly working on a computer in an empty room, to come out and bask in the glow. Naw, she says, there’s work to do. She’s speaking for the movie, in a way.
And so the tension is passed forward to the next scene. What could be played as a huge turning point in the film, isn’t. Finding the cure is a major event played off as a minor inflection point. That’s wonderfully subtle and smart: it keeps the tension paying forward. You can imagine it going a different direction: big party, everyone drunk and smiling and talking about the Nobel prize and rebuilding society, gosh, we’ve learned our lesson, Ehle and Fishbourne talking about retiring on some mountain lake in Colorado and then: a phone call. Fishbourne takes it. It’s the President: the disease has mutated into something that thrives in drinking water and has an R-nought of 112 and everyone will be dead in 24 hours. Waa waa.
Or, we have a cure and everything thereafter becomes simple wrap-up. Snooze.
As silly as my made-up scene is, that and scenes like it, are a reset and the norm. They release the audience’s stored up tension, ratchet it all down a couple of notches, and then introduce the next problem to tackle. Heavy handed movies flow like that (not really flow per se, more like they are constructed), and therefore don’t build up enough tension to ever have a payoff in releasing it. Other movies release it all and start on something new (George Lucas seems to love this: Star Wars: A New Hope and The Phantom Menace are both three mini-movies strung together. We won the pod race. No more tension. Next conflict please.)
A lot of time these resets are manufactured. Up and then down. Fast then slow. The car chase followed by a heart to heart on a quiet dock. The “there was nothing you could have done” speech. That sorta thing. Those moments begin to feel forced, and have been used so often and so ham-fisted, that an audience can feel 'em coming.
Contagion doesn’t reset, not in any meaningful way. The only resets it allows are deaths and they don’t represent any relief; they tend to cause more tension. Usually, deaths are of people we want dead (bad guys) or are impetus for the protagonist to keep going (revenge, mourning). In Contagion, death is loss. It drives and defines Damon’s character (with the death of the wife and step son at the beginning), or represents the loss of important knowledge and experience (Winslet). These events are not really resets or resolution: just because a story-line in Contagion ends, doesn’t mean it is resolved. Each storyline, even if it ends in a death, keeps feeding forward. That’s fairly relentless.
There are two story lines that feel wacky within the context of what I outlined above. If you’ve set up a world and characters and have expectations, all is wonderful when you follow the rules. The more subtle that world and those characters, the more apt that breaks in that world and rules will stand out.
There are two such breaks in Contagion.
The first is the blogger character, played by Jude Law. I can understand the thinking behind having this character (roles of media, roles of amateur opinion vs. professional). And simply, he is the closest thing the movie has to a “evil” character. He’s wrong, and doing the wrong things, which all go against what the right, “good” characters are doing. That is all fine, but Jude Law’s character is also loaded with intent. Way too loaded, way too much intent. He’s anti-establishment, big on conspiracy theory, has a following of 12 million netizens, offers up a 'cure’, but also wants to earn big money. That’s a lot to heap on one character in a movie that is full of subtle characters and motivations. Jude Law’s character can’t be subtle, there is too much heaped on top of him and so he doesn’t really work. In his case, his character is driving the world, while the rest of the characters are being driven by the world. It doesn’t fit.
It doesn’t help that Law plays this character with a bit too much gusto. Most of the other performances are letting the dialog and narrative flow drive the emotion and energy, but Jude seems to be pushing a little too hard to emote. A wee bit too much chutzpah.
And while I know bloggers have growing influence in today’s “media landscape”, I sincerely doubt that, in the face of a high mortality pandemic, that a blogger is going to grossly influence popular opinion enough to cause riots and sway world markets (Forsythia futures, haha).
Law’s character approaches caricature in a movie that is doing its best to avoid just that.
The other break is the kidnapping subplot of Cotillard. This one I did not buy at all. If I can accept the WHY of Jude’s character but not the execution, with Cottilard’s character I cannot fathom either: the situation is too sensational and the follow-through on it is non-existent. Cotillard’s running about, she’s carted away, and the next time we see her she is teaching kids in a village. She’s traded for an Igloo cooler full of saline solution and the kidnappers, who up to this point have been patient and methodical, say hell yeah we win and leave her and take the placebo. What? Really? You are jaded enough to resort to kidnapping and holding a human at gunpoint for four months (to save a small village, talk about a mixed up moral-ethical system), and yet you are naive enough to give away all of that hard work to a lone stranger, a vague promise and a metal box of water-filled nose plungers? Boo.
The kidnapping plot line added nothing to the story. I can understand the macro-micro structure of the movie: personal level, people in the field level, manager level, government level, but I don’t get the kidnappers and victim angle. Can’t imagine that is a broad stroke in how the upcoming pandemic will play out, and if it does, hopefully it won’t play out as lamely.
Subtle and Not So Subtle Endings
One more teensy point, before I wrap up.
Soderbergh shows us the beginning of the outbreak near the end of the movie. Wonderfully subtle, but pretty damn clear: Damon in the closet looking at pictures of his wife on her digital camera. Pictures: wife in the casino. Wife drinking. People eating. People eating PORK. More people eating PORK. And then wife clasping hands with a CHEF. A CHEF who cooked PORK. The disease is a combo pig-bat concoction. JESUS, IT’S IN THE PORK. IT’S THE GODDAMN CHEF. Ok. We got it.
Only, I guess we didn’t get it. So we have a outtro with a bat eating a banana, a bat slobbering out a banana over a pig pen, and a pig eating a bat-banana and a chef and waa laa, back to Day 1.
Yeah, ok, nice symmetry. It explains why we started on Day 2. Wraps us up at the beginning. We’ll all go back and see the movie again cause it ended at the beginning. Yeah yeah. But, eh, I like the subtlety of the clues in the closet, not the 'in your face’ ending that doesn’t add anything new.
And the whole indictment of the corporation feels like an afterthought. The logo is on the bulldozers killing the rain forest and she worked there and we are killing ourselves by killing the rain forest. That’s a different movie, guys.
The start of the pandemic is meaningless in context of the ending of the pandemic. This isn’t The Sixth Sense. We just watched 100 million people die and the fabric of society dissolve under the sheer weight of panic and suspicion, and you feel it necessary to show us a bat and a banana? I guess you could make the case that incredibly terrible things can happen from such inconsequential happenstance as a bat dropping a bit of banana. I can buy that. Nature is crazy neato that way. But I can’t buy this movie ending with that. If you really feel compelled, show it at the beginning; it will add context for the entire movie. Showing it at the end feels forced and clever. I have to wonder if the movie wasn’t originally cut to start on Day 1 but some tricky producer out-clevered himself …
• Every character that falls ill ends up dying. That’s strange because the disease only has a 25-30% mortality rate. I guess we focused on some unlucky folks.
• If this had been a Michael Bay film, sick Kate Winslet would have been flown to a secret government base in a titanium-clad F-35 prototype 'Virus Buster’ CDC Level-5 armored jet fighter that incorporated advanced AI and flew itself. The jet would have provided comic relief by making inappropriate jokes about the frailty of humans and the size of Winslet’s boobs. The wise-cracking jet plane would have had a Canadian accent and been named “Big Dick”, as in, “They call me Big Dick. Hold on there, eh, I’d hate to see a pretty piece of flesh like you die the Friendly Skies, you know what I mean? Eh!” ZOOM!!
• How does Damon know that the supply truck is empty? Why does he feel the need to tell no one in particular that “the truck is empty”? Does it really matter? The soldier already said it. People are irrational. The audience gets that; there isn’t any need to remind us. You might just as well had Damon record a VO: “I watched on in horror as the Mob plundered an empty army supply truck. My god, is this what we had come to?”
• Lawrence Fishbourne, you are awesome. Not once did I look at you and think, that guy is acting. Everytime I see Fishbourne, he’s great. Predators? Darn bad movie, but Fishbourne made his scenes believable. Hollywood: more Fishbourne, please.
• Kate Winslet is great too, and has the best scene in the movie: she’s almost dead, and the guy next to her needs a blanket. In her last dying moments, she weakly pushes her coat towards him. Really all she does is push it off her cot. Defines her character really well, and the need to do good in the face of hopelessness.
And before, in the hotel when she finds out she’s sick: is she crying because she is afraid of dying, or because she can’t help anymore and she feels a failure? Both, I like to believe. Winslet and the script convey that complexity without actually saying it out loud. Good stuff.